LSU center Darcy Malone, right, blocks a shot by Tennessee guard Derek Reese (23) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Lau)
The Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Lau
February 16, 2015

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) After emerging as one of the Southeastern Conference's biggest surprises at the start of conference play, Tennessee has received a reality check.

And the Vols could be in for another on Tuesday when they host No. 1 Kentucky.

Tennessee (14-10, 6-6 SEC) has lost five of its last seven games, dropping the Volunteers from second place to seventh in the conference standings. The Vols have been particularly vulnerable at home, where they're 2-4 in SEC competition.

The Vols will try to stop both trends against the top-ranked Wildcats (25-0, 12-0).

''I think it's arguably the best team to ever be assembled,'' Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. ''One team I think is comparable is the team with (Stacey) Augmon and (Larry) Johnson and that group at UNLV, but this team here is right there in the talk for being the most talented team ever assembled.''

Tennessee could have a couple of things in its favor as it heads into its toughest test of the season.

Sophomore guard Robert Hubbs, who got injured Saturday in a 73-55 loss to LSU, merely has a dislocated thumb and should be able to play against Kentucky. Tyndall initially feared the thumb was broken.

Kentucky also had to move up its schedule and head down to Knoxville on Sunday night due to snowy weather forecasts in Lexington. Kentucky coach John Calipari wonders how his team will respond to the change in routine.

''I'm a creature of habit,'' Calipari said. ''I'm a meatloaf-and-potatoes (guy), unless they don't have it. Then I may try a steak.''

But the Vols still must step up their performance considerably to have any chance of competing with Kentucky.

Tennessee had overachieved for much of the season after being picked by the SEC media to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the league. Josh Richardson is the only returning player who averaged more than five points per game last season for the Tennessee team that reached the NCAA regional semifinals.

The Vols raced to a 12-5 start that included a 4-1 mark in league play, but they've struggled since. Tyndall said as the season has progressed, opponents have done a better job of exploiting his team's weaknesses.

''I think our team is being exposed in some areas where maybe early on we did a good job of hiding or at least camouflaging a little bit,'' Tyndall said. ''Now we're being exposed.''

Tennessee's most notable weakness is its lack of proven post players, something that became particularly apparent against LSU when the Vols had no answer for Jordan Mickey. The absence of a reliable post scorer prevents Tennessee from working the ball inside for easy baskets when it isn't shooting well from the perimeter.

Defense carried Tennessee early in the season but hasn't been as effective lately.

Over its last four games, Tennessee has allowed opponents to shoot 52.9 percent (90 of 170) overall and 47.6 percent (30 of 63) from 3-point range. The only game the Vols won during that stretch was a 76-73 overtime triumph at Vanderbilt in which they erased a five-point deficit in the final 15 seconds of regulation.

Through its first 17 games, Tennessee allowed opponents to shoot just 40.6 percent overall and 36.8 percent from 3-point range.

The loss to LSU arguably marked the lowest point of Tennessee's season. The Vols trailed 47-20 after a first-half performance that Tyndall said was the worst half by any of his teams in his 10-year head coaching career.

Tyndall said Saturday that if the Vols performed he same way against Kentucky as they did in the first half of the LSU game, they'd lose by 100 points. Tyndall insisted Monday he wasn't exaggerating.

''If we play like we did the first half, it will be a long, long night for us,'' Tyndall said.

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