KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The underclassmen who dominate Tennessee's roster are learning some hard lessons about how the intensity level changes as March approaches.
After outperforming preseason expectations for much of the season, Tennessee (15-14, 7-9 SEC) has dropped four of its last five games to fall out of contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. In their last two games, the Volunteers lost 67-56 to Vanderbilt and 82-55 at South Carolina .
''Our last two opponents, there's no doubt their experience and understanding of where they are and what they're playing for is a factor,'' Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. ''It is something that I think our guys are going through and learning, that it's not easy. Winning's not easy, and it gets tougher as the year goes on.''
Tennessee realistically needs to win the Southeastern Conference tournament to land an NCAA bid and must play well these next couple of weeks just to have a shot at the NIT. Tennessee caps the regular season by visiting LSU (9-19, 1-15) on Wednesday and hosting Alabama (16-12, 9-7) on Saturday.
But the Vols already have taken a step forward just by making sure these last few weeks had postseason implications.
Tennessee was picked before the season to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC. The Vols had to replace three of the top four scorers from a team that finished 15-19 last year. They lost starting forward John Fulkerson to a dislocated shoulder in mid-December and lost their second-leading scorer when Detrick Mostella was dismissed from the team on Jan. 10.
Freshman guard Jordan Bowden has played a total of one minute over the last three games due to pneumonia. Senior guard Robert Hubbs III, who has a team-high 14.4 points per game, had his knee drained for the second time in the last few weeks Friday.
''What he had to have done Friday and to go out and play the way he did Saturday (against South Carolina), I can't say enough about him,'' Barnes said.
Hubbs is one of only two upperclassmen on Tennessee's roster. When Bowden has been healthy, Tennessee generally has started three freshmen.
The best of those freshmen is forward Grant Williams, who has played bigger than his 6-foot-5 frame to lead the team in rebounding and blocks. Williams has a pair of 30-point performances this season, though he's scored over 11 points in just one of his last four games.
''Grant's learning it's a little bit more difficult when people start game-planning for you,'' Barnes said. ''That's when (he's) got to keep his emotions in check and understand that he's got to get better. The harder people play against you, the harder you have to learn to play. He still hasn't learned how to get over that hump yet.''
Tennessee's biggest issue all season has been at point guard, where the Vols lack experience. Barnes tried shaking things up Saturday by giving freshman Kwe Parker his first career start in place of freshman Jordan Bone, but the move didn't pay off.
''We need to get some consistency there,'' Barnes said. ''We've talked about that all year.''
Now that an NCAA at-large bid appears out of reach, Tennessee must make sure it avoids a second straight losing season. A victory over LSU would assure the Vols at least finish the regular season above .500.
This final week of the regular season also gives Tennessee a chance to reverse this slide and head into next week's SEC tournament with momentum.
''It has been a learning process,'' Barnes said. ''We've had to work through some different lineup changes, but we've got a good group of guys. I expect them to come in today, get busy working and get ready for the next game.''
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