Fresh off a distasteful loss to an in-state rival and with time running out to secure a NCAA Tournament at-large bid, the Tennessee basketball team feasts its eyes upon a struggling opponent firmly nestled in the SEC cellar.
The Vols look to get back in the win column Saturday at 3 p.m. in a home tilt against the South Carolina Gamecocks inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Gamecocks (8-14, 1-8 SEC) hold the bottom spot in the conference by a whole two games and have six double-digit losses on the year. But USC's lone SEC win was a 28-point drubbing of Texas A&M, who the Vols lost to at home on Jan. 11.
While Frank Martin's Gamecocks have consistently struggled, Tennessee (14-8, 5-4) has been the epitome of inconsistency, having virtually traded wins and losses in SEC play.
The Vols' only conference win streak — all of two games — was halted Wednesday night in a 64-60 road loss to Vanderbilt, who boasted just seven scholarship players.
Consistency has been an ever-elusive skill that UT has unsuccessfully chased all season, seeming to play its best games when coming off its most underwhelming defeats.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin admitted it's not easy to deal with the team's identity crisis of not knowing what team will show up to play. But he has plenty of faith in his experienced core.
"That part is tough," Martin said after Wednesday's loss, "but you have experienced guys. And the good thing about it is that you can bounce back, learn from it and move forward."
"Tough" was such a fitting word for Tennessee's maddening and mediocre season that Jordan McRae used it himself to describe it, but the senior guard plans to shoulder more of the load as a veteran leader.
"I mean, it's tough for us," McRae said. "But just our older guys on the team, we've got to be strong for everybody and keep going hard in practice every day, and things like that."
The Vols were out-worked on both ends of the floor by an undermanned Vandy squad on Wednesday, and while UT eliminated a 12-point second half deficit, it couldn't completely erase the woeful start that put the Vols in a hole virtually all game.
"It happens," Martin said. "You would like to see your guys play better. They stepped up better in the second half, but we just got off to a slow start and you have to give Vandy credit for that."
To keep the Gamecocks at bay early, UT will have to break its recent trend of allowing huge games to opposing guards. South Carolina freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell has surpassed 20 points in four of his last eight games, and his 6-foot-5 frame could pose issues on the perimeter.
Thornwell is among the many South Carolina players that Martin and his staff are dissecting in preparation for Saturday, as they look to move on from Wednesday's defeat.
"You always look at film and you try to correct it," Martin said. "That's the biggest key — studying and watching film, making sure you're taking care of the ball, getting the shots you need to get, and then going from there."