Positive momentum down the stretch of a season can carry a team to the Promised Land known as the NCAA March Madness Tournament; on the other hand, negative energy can seep into a team's core and wreak havoc on postseason dreams.
While on a three-game conference win streak to close out January and to begin this month, the Vols' decisive victories over LSU, Ole Miss and Auburn seemed to be generating a formidable sense of momentum going into the most important stretch of the season.
The men's basketball team began to resemble its old self — the team that knocked off Pittsburgh, Villanova, and Memphis — from the beginning of the season. The cohesion and excitement seen at Madison Square Garden was swiftly being put on display again.
However, a close overtime loss to Alabama at home has apparently quelled the momentum that the win streak and the prospective return of Vols coach Bruce Pearl for his first SEC game of the season only two days later. After the loss to Alabama, Tobias Harris spoke to the energy Pearl brings to this team, both on the court and behind the scenes.
"We're very excited (to have coach Pearl back), but at the same time (associate head) coach (Tony) Jones and the rest of the staff did a great job during this eight-game stretch," Harris said. "Having coach Pearl back is just great for us, and I know he's really excited to be back also."
Tennessee went on to lose Pearl's conference debut at Rupp Arena against a strong Kentucky team, letting the momentum fade a bit more.
Saturday, Scotty Hopson torched the Gators, as he did against Pitt and 'Nova earlier in the season; however, Florida edged its rival, Tennessee, 61-60 at home. This three game skid has left a blemish on Tennessee's NCAA tournament resume. Despite struggling with the 11th-hardest of schedule in the nation, Tennessee still ranks 25th in RPI, and both polls have a heavy impact on tournament seeding.
With six games left on the schedule, all SEC foes and four at home, the Vols will need to take their first step to generating another burst of momentum to end the season by winning at home against South Carolina on Wednesday night. The Vols must rely on improved play from the point guards, which means Melvin Goins and others will need to successfully distribute the ball around the perimeter to Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum and down low to Tobias Harris and Brian Williams.
"We have to have better p o i n t- guard play," Pearl said. "So there could be some changes. Right
now, it's Melvin Goins and Trae Golden. It could have to be Josh Bone or Skylar McBee. That could be in the cards against S o u t h Carolina."
Although South Carolina is the only team ranked below the Vols in the SEC East standings, it has beaten both Vanderbilt and a Florida team that has handed Tennessee a pair of losses. The Gamecocks will be playing without an integral part of their team, though, as all-around forward Lakeem Jackson will be on the bench with a foot injury.