Nearly one year ago to the day, a floundering Tennessee men's basketball team hosted Georgia and star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at Thompson-Boling Arena. Losers in six of their last nine games, the Vols were watching the season slip away over the horizon.
Then the Bulldogs showed up in Knoxville. A nondescript 73-62 UT win left nary a blip on the radar. A few weeks later, however, the victory stood as a turning point, of sorts. Coach Cuonzo Martin's team built on the win, ringing up Ws in seven of its next eight, and meandered into the NCAA tournament bubble.
Georgia returns to Knoxville today (TV: MyVLT, 8 p.m.). That noise you hear is echoes of last year. Tennessee has lost six of its last nine. Check. Early hopes of a triumphant 2012-13 season are all but snuffed out. Check. The Vols are in desperate need of a springboard. Check.
"Our confidence is still way up," UT guard Jordan McRae, a native of Midway, Ga., said earlier this week. "We still have a ways to go in the SEC, so it's not over for us."
While upstart Georgia enters the game on a three-game winning streak, Tennessee (11-9, 3-5 SEC) is coming off a 73-60 loss at Arkansas. Despite the defeat, the game was highlighted for UT by a season high 14-point performance from senior forward Kenny Hall.
Hall's name was in the news Tuesday, but for very different reasons. The Stone Mountain, Ga., native was arrested early Tuesday morning for driving on a suspended license.
Martin informed the News Sentinel late Tuesday that Hall does not face suspension and will be uniform against Georgia.
UT point guard Trae Golden, a junior from Power Springs, Ga., might not be as lucky. The junior is unlikely to play today as his recovery from a strained hamstring continues.
Golden or no Golden, the Vols will have a singular gameplan against Georgia (10-11, 4-4): Stop Caldwell-Pope.
The 6-foot-5 guard has led the Bulldogs in scoring in 19 of 21 games. UT hopes not to be No. 20.
"Caldwell-Pope — that's obviously going to be an emphasis — not letting him go off on us," said McRae, who hails from Midway, Ga., about 30 miles southeast of Savannah.
Caldwell-Pope recently passed McRae as the SEC's second-leading scorer in league play. Caldwell-Pope averages 17.6 points. McRae sits at 17.3.
McRae's production has dropped of late. After averaging 21.6 points on 48.6 percent shooting over a seven-game stretch, the junior scored 13 points on 4-for-21 shooting combined in UT's last two outings. He has recently switched from his off-the-ball offensive role to being one of the Vols' primary point guards.
"I've just been letting teams kind of speed me up, forcing me into tough 2s," McRae said. "I've just really got to slow down. That comes along with me learning how to be a point guard."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn