For the longest time this season, Tennessee was rolling. After its first loss against Kansas, it cruised against nearly every team it faced. And so, after 19 straight wins, Tennessee was at the top of the polls, looking like a shoo-in for the SEC Regular Season Title, and staring a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament right in the face. It was fun and predictable.
Then, the last four games happened. Now, who knows where the rest of the season will take us.
It all started with the Kentucky game two weeks ago. Going on the road as the No. 1 team in the country is always a burden. The away crowd, the target on your back, the outside expectations, all variables that other teams don’t normally have to deal with. Needless to say, Tennessee must have felt burdened by a lot more than that, because it got smoked. The winning streak was over, the bad guys won, and the once dauntless Tennessee Volunteers looked all too human on the way to a 86-69 loss.
Fortunately, after its battle against Kentucky, Tennessee was matched up with a struggling Vanderbilt team. At the time, Vanderbilt hadn’t even won a conference game and was on a 13-game losing streak. It was an opportunity for Tennessee to regroup and get back to the form that had them at the top of the game for a few weeks. In the end, the defense was refreshingly solid and Tennessee won easily 58-46, but the offense still looked out of sorts.
Following the cakewalk against Vanderbilt was a road trip down to the bayou to take on the Tigers of LSU. Facing a tough team and a biased whistle, Tennessee managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory, losing 82-80 in overtime. That’s all there is to say about that.
And finally, on Wednesday, Tennessee had to hit the road again to go down to Oxford, Miss. One clutch shot, ballsy charge call, and trashed basketball floor later, Tennessee had won again in a nail biter, 73-71.
So just to recap. Tennessee had a streak-breaking, embarrassing loss. Then, a defensive showcase to overcome a second consecutive miserable offensive night. Followed by a thrilling overtime finish mired in controversy because of the officiating. And finally, a resilient, gritty win on the road. Tennessee has had enough drama in the last four games to fill a season.
All this is to say, its toughest test yet will possibly be this afternoon against No. 4 Kentucky at home. Last time they met, as we’ve already covered, the Vols got railroaded in front of the entire country. Now, they have the opportunity in front of a home crowd to redeem themselves. And remember, the last time Tennessee lost in Thompson-Boling Arena, an Ed Sheeran song was the No. 1 song in the country. That’s Jan. 2, 2018 for those that don’t want to look it up like I had to.
To win today, Tennessee will have to slow down PJ Washington. Last time these two teams met, Washington shot an easy 75 percent from the field on the way to a 23-point outing. Tennessee’s defense hasn’t been terrible the last few games, so the trend suggests they should have an answer for Washington this go round.
Offensively, Tennessee will need to start shooting the ball better. It’s been struggling from the field of late, only making 50 percent or more of its shots three times in eight games since the start of February.
Finally, Tennessee needs to win the rebound battle this go round. Kentucky dominated the boards last game, out-rebounding Tennessee 38-24.
Will Tennessee be able to officially right the ship and avenge its most embarrassing loss of the season this afternoon? With a raucous home crowd, an effective gameplan, and maybe even a friendly whistle, it probably can.