Momentum is a hard device to quantify.
“Yeah,” Josh Richardson agreed, “whatever it is, we’ve got it.”
The Tennessee sophomore guard is content with the vagueness of what’s happened to his Vols.
Steaming along on a six-game winning streak that includes three wins on the road, UT heads to Georgia for a tilt with the Bulldogs today (TV: WVLT, 1:30 p.m.).
Vagueness aside, no view is blurred of what sits ahead. Now 17-10 and tied for fifth in the SEC standings alongside Missouri at 9-6, the Vols can pave their own road. They hope it leads to a double-bye in the SEC tournament and ends in the NCAA tournament.
The last team to beat Tennessee? It was Georgia (13-15, 7-8 SEC), on Feb. 6, in a 68-62 setback.
“They kind of embarrassed us at home,” said Jordan McRae, whose 27 points powered UT to Tuesday’s 64-58 home win over No. 8 Florida. “We definitely didn’t plan on losing any home games, so they embarrassed us. The game was never even close.”
McRae said that meeting with Georgia “seems like it was months ago,” but it was just 25 days ago. That was back when UT dug itself a 3-6 hole in the SEC standings.
Thanks to that aforementioned momentum, the Vols are now on flirting with a top-four spot in the league. That would earn them two days off in the SEC tournament (March 13-17). Finishing fifth or sixth gets them a single bye.
UT is still three games behind first-place Florida, but just one-game back from fourth-place Ole Miss. Alabama and Kentucky, each 11-4 in conference play, are sandwiched in second.
Ole Miss faces last-place Mississippi State today, meaning the Vols likely need a win today to keep pace.
“We know that we have to win these games,” said McRae, who is averaging 18.3 points per game in league play. “We went into the Florida game knowing we had to win. We’ve got to get every game.”
Especially given their position on the ever-fickle NCAA tournament bubble.
In his latest projection, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi excludes the Vols. Nor does he include them in his “first four out” or “next four out.” They are, however, in the picture. An RPI of 52 and strength of schedule rating of 21 continue to climb.
“We can’t let anyone determine whether we get in,” Richardson said.
So there is work to be
done and games to be won.
Following Georgia, UT faces Auburn on the road and Missouri at Thompson-Boling Arena.
First things first, though. While more attention is being paid to the season-finale next Saturday against Missouri, the trip to Athens could be a well-hidden landmine. Star sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope poured in 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting the last time the two met. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin tried various defensive matchups on the 6-foot-5 guard.
“We could have done a better job defending him,” Martin said. “He’s efficient in the way he scores. He’s going to score the ball. He’s going to make plays.”
Martin added the Vols will force other Georgia players to try and beat them. The plan is to limit Caldwell-Pope’s touches —no small task. Everything Georgia coach Mark Fox runs goes through his star.
But while the Vols are climbing, Georgia is falling. Fox’s team has lost three of its past four, the lone win coming at home against South Carolina.
As for his team’s upward momentum, Martin believes maturation might be the key.
“I saw a lot of maturity from the guys after (last weekend’s four-overtime win at Texas A&M),” he said. “You get a big win, then a two-hour flight home, not a lot of practice time on the floor. To go over a gameplan against Florida, a very talented team, you need a lot of hours. The mental focus was there. Give the guys a lot of credit for the mental maturity and growing up as a team.”
In McRae’s words, the Vols are “rolling at the right time.”
“Some teams are falling at this time,” he said. “I’d rather be on the way up than on the way down at this time. (Earning a bye) is important, but we’re just trying to do what we can.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.