Vols looking to avoid inconsistencies ahead of SEC Tournament

Cory Sanning

If there was one word that could sum up the past month for Tennessee basketball, it would be inconsistency.

In fact, that term sums up the Vols' fortunes all season.

After climbing into the AP Top 25 towards the start of nonconference play, UT took a sharp nose dive following the loss of Lamonte Turner for the season. Tennessee finished just 9-9 in SEC play, the program's worst mark since the 2016-17 season.

For head coach Rick Barnes, the Vols' struggles have gone back to simple inconsistencies behind the scenes that have routinely plagued them this year.

"You build habits and you build the continuity that you're looking for," Barnes said. "But I don't think that at this time of the year, you can be really bad in practice, and if you are, you just haven't gotten it figured out yet."

It's those poor efforts in practice that have had Barnes steaming in the days since UT's 85-63 loss to then-No. 17 Auburn on Saturday.

Despite knocking off Kentucky in Lexington in perhaps the most improbable win of the season, Tennessee was unable to capitalize off of the tidal wave of momentum that it captured at Rupp Arena.

Youth and immaturity may play a factor into that, a reality that Barnes has began to notice at an alarming rate.

"You start trying to analyze it and say that our guys start to have people feeling good about them, and they're kids," Barnes said. "And they can get caught up in it and they can lose focus, and the key is that you've got to be able to reset your focus."

That focus is now fixated on ninth-seeded Alabama, whom the Vols will play in their opening matchup in the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Thursday.

A year ago, Tennessee entered the postseason with SEC and national championships aspirations. This time around, the Vols are simply hoping to make it out of the first round. 

While long-removed from those lofty expectations, UT still has plenty to play for despite being just three games above .500.

The only question that remains is which version of Tennessee will show up in the Music City. Given what has transpired over the past two games, it's simply too tough to tell, and Barnes realizes that.

"Where we are right now, it's hard for me to say we've improved," Barnes said. "We still have a lot to play for and for us not to respond better mentally is so frustrating and disappointing."

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