If the Tennessee Vols ever figure out how to win a close game they could be dangerous.
Heading into tonight's contest at Georgia, Cuonzo Martin's team is 2-7 in games decided by eight points or less. Tennessee's six most recent setbacks included five gut-wrenching losses — by five points (61-56 to Pitt), by four points (74-70 to Austin Peay), by six points (71-65 at College of Charleston), by four points (62-58 at Mississippi State) and by three points (65-62 to Kentucky).
With a clutch play late in three of those five games Tennessee easily could be 11-6 overall and 3-0 in SEC play, instead of 8-9 and 1-2.
The Pitt and Mississippi State outcomes were particularly upsetting for the Vols, who had a chance to tie or win in the final seconds each time only to turn the ball over without attempting a shot.
"We're progressing in a lot of areas but our biggest concern as a staff is turnovers," Martin said this week. "We put ourselves in great position to win games, then we have costly turnovers in tough situations, so that's an area we have to get better in."
Although the Vols have dropped three of their last four games, including road losses at Memphis and Mississippi State, Martin isn't planning any major changes for tonight.
"Not at all. Stick to the script," he said. "Nothing changes. Just like the system: If you start changing, you forget who you are after awhile. We'll stick to the script. If we don't turn the ball over we've got a chance to be successful."
That sounds awfully confident for a coach with an 8-9 record but Tennessee's recent performances suggest the Vols are much better than their record indicates. They have played well against three top-20 teams in a row — trouncing No. 13 Florida 67-56, bowing 62-58 at No. 20 Mississippi State and falling 65-62 to No. 2 Kentucky.
"I think if we started the season right now we're just as good as anybody, as far as I'm concerned," Martin said. "And I told the guys that."
John Calipari agrees. Moments after eking out a three-point win at Thompson-Boling Arena last Saturday, Kentucky's head man said: "I am so impressed with what Coach Martin has done.... I don’t really care what their record is; that is an NCAA Tournament team."
Tennessee's players think so, too. Fans may have been surprised by the 11-point thumping of Florida and the close calls against Mississippi State and Kentucky but the Vols insist they weren't.
"We knew we could play with anybody in NCAA basketball," junior forward Jeronne Maymon said. "It's more about us going out there and executing on the offensive and defensive end, playing our basketball.
"Most teams can't take us out of what we do but we can. We take ourselves out sometimes."
Senior wing Cameron Tatum described Tennessee's effort the past three games as "encouraging," adding: "We believe we can compete against anybody in the country. We have played against the top teams in the country since the beginning of the season. We have confidence in ourselves and everybody on the team. It is no surprise to us that we stay in games. We just need to finish them."
Apparently, a humiliating 69-51 loss at Memphis on Jan. 4 shamed the Vols into playing with more energy and focus, especially on defense.
"I think the key is when you 100 percent buy in and understand the level we want to be, you sell yourself to the team completely and you start to see long-term results," Martin said. "You're starting to see that. I do think we're playing at a level where we can be really good as a program."
For the Vols to qualify as "really good," however, they need to start winning some close games.
NOTES: Georgia brings a 9-8 overall record and an 0-3 SEC mark into tonight's game. The Bulldogs are expected to start 6-9, 220-pound sophomore Donte' Williams (7.5 points per game), 6-8, 230-pound freshman Nemanja Djurisic (6.4 ppg), 6-5, 200-pound freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.5 ppg), 6-1, 180-pound senior Gerald Robinson (13.4 ppg) and 5-11, 172-pound senior Dustin Ware (8.4 ppg). Robinson is a Nashville native who began his college career at Tennessee State.... Oddly enough, Caldwell-Pope is shooting a better percentage from 3-point range (45.0) than he is overall (41.7).... Tennessee has won 14 of the past 17 games in the series, although Georgia took the most recent meeting, prevailing 69-63 last February in Knoxville.... Coincidentally, Tennessee made its last trip to Athens exactly one year ago (Jan. 18, 2011), nipping the Dawgs 59-57 under the guidance of interim head coach Tony Jones.... Tonight's tipoff is set for 8:00 Eastern with television coverage provided by the SEC Network.