KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee once again may be hurting its NCAA tournament hopes early in the season.
The Volunteers (6-3) squandered an opportunity to get a quality nonconference victory Saturday by fading down the stretch of a 70-61 loss at No. 11 Wichita State, which was ranked 12th at the time. Tennessee attempts to bounce back Wednesday against North Carolina State (7-2).
Tennessee wants to avoid a repeat of the last two seasons, when early-season struggles caused the Vols to land in the NIT. But they aren't dwelling over how each loss in November or December may affect them in March.
"That's just something that's more added pressure and worry that you don't need," senior guard Jordan McRae said. "I think it's enough for us to understand what it feels like to not be in the tournament, how that pain feels, (rather than) just worry every game that we lose, 'Ah, man, now we're not going to get in the tournament.' I think that's just dumb."
Tennessee entered this season with high hopes. The Vols returned three of their top four starters from a team that went 20-13 last year. They added Memphis transfer Antonio Barton and welcomed back former second-team all-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, who missed the entire 2012-13 season with a knee injury.
"(Why) we haven't played to our potential, I don't know yet," junior forward Jarnell Stokes said.
Although McRae is Tennessee's leading scorer, the Vols' fortunes have depended on Stokes' production. Stokes has averaged 17 points per game in Tennessee's six wins and 8.3 points in its three losses.
Tennessee's sluggish start has caused some disgruntlement among its fan base because the Vols followed a similar pattern in Cuonzo Martin's first two seasons as coach. Tennessee started 8-10 in 2011-12 and 11-10 last year before coming on strong down the stretch each season.
The Vols have a better record so far this year, but they lack nonconference victories over high-profile opponents. Their best wins came in the consolation round of the Battle 4 Atlantis against Wake Forest and Xavier, which beat Tennessee earlier in the season. Athletic director Dave Hart noted that it's still early and Tennessee has some quality nonconference opportunities remaining.
"Our team has yet to really jell," Hart said. "The coaches, they'll assess and address and make necessary modifications as they see fit."
Hart said Tennessee had to go through an adjustment period even though it returned much of its nucleus from last year. Barton, the starting point guard, is in his first year at Tennessee. Freshmen Robert Hubbs III, A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson have been Tennessee's top three reserves. Maymon is coming back from an injury.
But the Vols can't afford a slow start because their SEC schedule won't provide many chances for attention-getting wins. Although Tennessee has two games each with No. 16 Florida and No. 23 Missouri, the Vols only get one shot at No. 19 Kentucky.
That makes it imperative for Tennessee to fare well against nonconference foes. Tennessee's top remaining nonconference games are Wednesday against North Carolina State and Dec. 30 against Virginia.
"The most important thing is N.C. State," Martin said. "I don't consume myself with anything (other) than that. I'm not necessarily concerned. If we do what we need to do, we'll be fine."