The Vols are notoriously weak at home this year, having lost seven home games for the first time since Kevin O'Neill's initial UT squad went 7-8 at TBA en route to an 11-16 overall record in 1994-95. The Wildcats, despite an imposing 8-0 in SEC home games, are notoriously weak on the road, carrying a paltry 1-6 record vs. conference opponents.
Kentucky's futility on the road is somewhat understandable. The Big Blue relies heavily on freshmen, and some of them have not yet developed the poise to effectively handle late-game stress before hostile crowds. Moreover, the six SEC road losses were all competitive - seven points at Georgia, two points at Alabama, two points at Ole Miss, two points at Florida, four points at Vanderbilt and one point in overtime at Arkansas.
Tennessee's futility at home is not so easily explained. The Vols draw 20,000 fans just about every time they open the gates, yet they rarely manage to feed off of the energy emanating from the stands.
So why is Tennessee struggling so mightily at Thompson-Boling Arena this season?
"There is more pressure to win at home," head coach Bruce Pearl said recently. "There are more distractions at home. Maybe you play with a little bit more freedom, and I think some of that freedom led to some really bad shot selection (in the most recent home loss) against Mississippi State."
Incredibly, Tennessee has dropped three of its last four home games - bowing 65-60 in overtime to Alabama, subduing South Carolina 73-67, then losing 69-63 to Georgia and falling 70-69 to Mississippi State. The crowds showed up in big numbers and full voice each time, yet the Vols struggled each time.
"I think you've got a balance," Pearl said. "While the crowd can inspire you and there's a certain comfort level at home, the balance to that is additional pressure. When you lose as many close games as we have at home, you begin to doubt. Your confidence definitely begins to get rattled, and that begins to build on itself a little bit."
So, here's the deal:
At 18-12 overall and 8-7 in SEC play, Tennessee is feeling pressure to lock down an NCAA Tournament bid. Tennessee is feeling pressure to try and boost its seeding for the SEC Tournament. Tennessee is feeling pressure to build some momentum heading into the postseason. In addition, Tennessee is feeling pressure to please the home fans, something it routinely has failed to do this season.
That's an awful lot of pressure, so you wonder if the Vols are mentally tough enough to deal with so much stress.
"When you do lose and doubt creeps in, it's hard to be mentally tough," Pearl said. "That's something we work on."
Perhaps the Vols will work hard enough to alleviate those doubts by Sunday. If not, painting that UK logo at midcourt might be a viable option.