Following a rocky 10-12 start that included losses to Oakland, College of Charleston and Austin Peay, Tennessee (18-13, 10-6 SEC) has an opportunity to play its way into the 68-team field of the NCAA Tournament following a late charge that saw the Volunteers take eight of their last nine games as they head into the SEC Tournament.
Capped by their most recent win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, the Vols secured the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, which tips off Thursday. The winner of the SEC Tournament is given an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
“Our guys did a good job closing out the regular season,” first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They played some good basketball, winning eight out of the last nine games — that’s impressive in any league. To do it at the level our guys did it at, to get back in games when we were down — it’s a credit to our guys for really staying focused and finding ways to win games. I like our chances, we have a lot of momentum going right now.”
As the No. 2 seed, the Vols receive a first-round bye and await the winner of Ole Miss and Auburn, who play on Thursday.
“I think in this particular case with Auburn and Ole Miss being similar teams — physical, grind you out, rebound, tough, hard-nosed — so they’re similar in their approach,” Martin said. “It’s not like one team is the tough team and the other team runs the Princeton offense. Both teams are similar, so it helps you.”
The Vols have seen both Auburn and Ole Miss earlier in the season, winning both contests by a considerable margin.
On Jan. 28 In front of a favorable home crowd, UT trumped the Tigers 64-49 in an impressive defensive showing that was headed by junior forward Jeronne Maymon’s sixth double-double of the season, which featured 15 points and 19 rebounds.
Coming off the Vols’ only loss of their season-ending nine-game stretch to Alabama, Tennessee defeated Ole Miss 73-60 on Feb. 22 where the Vols, helped by a surprising 10-point performance by sophomore forward Dwight Miller and a second half that saw just one UT turnover.
“There is a lot more work left to do so we can’t get too excited about (the SEC Tournament),” said UT senior guard Cameron Tatum. “We have to go to the SEC tourney with the same hunger and the same fight we had when we played teams earlier in the year. It is a beautiful thing when hard work does pay off; we’re not going to just settle.”
The Volunteers will see the winning opponent March 9 in New Orleans Arena, a neutral away site that could pose a problem for the Vols who boast a lackluster 2-10 record in games played away from Thompson-Boling Arena.
 “Every game is one game at a time,” Martin said. “As you go into a tournament environment, that’s my focus. There’s no tomorrow. You try to win every game you play; you don’t hold anything back and you don’t concentrate on the facts that we’re away from home. That shouldn’t matter. You make it to the next day. You prepare to win that game the best way possible.”
 However, some experts argue that a Vol win on Friday won’t guarantee them an at-large NCAA tournament bid. With that said, a Friday win would likely give the Vols another meeting with third-seeded Vanderbilt or sixth-seeded Mississippi State, barring two upsets by No. 11 seed Georgia.
“You have 10 wins in the SEC. When you say it from an NCAA standpoint as a body of work, we got out of the gates slow, but eight of the last nine — how many teams in the country, especially in at-large leagues, BCS leagues, how many are saying that?” Martin said. “Obviously, we’re a better team, no question, like with the addition of (mid-year enrollee) Jarnell Stokes. The guys on the team before Stokes have gotten better. I like our chances. You talk about 10 wins — 10-6 — that’s impressive.”
A team predicted to finish 11th in the SEC at the start of the season is hoping for a similar SEC Tournament outcome to last year’s.
 Last season, the Vols, as a five-seed in the SEC Tournament, recorded only one win in tournament play and finished with 14 losses on the year. The Vols were one of five at-large teams with 14 losses to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
A loss in this year’s SEC Tournament would put the Vols’ total at 14.
“I do my homework from a history standpoint,” Martin said. “I’m the coach in 2012. For us, we’re doing everything in our power to win ballgames, do well in the (SEC) tournament and get a bid. We just do everything in our power to win ballgames and go from there.”
 Tip off for the Vols’ first SEC tournament game is set for Friday at 6:30 p.m., and it will be aired on the SEC Network.