Before tonight's game at South Carolina, Cuonzo Martin may want to reenact the scene from Hoosiers in which Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) elaborately measures the rim heights at Butler Fieldhouse to remind his team that basketball is the same, no matter where it is played.
Martin's Tennessee Vols have struggled to grasp that concept this season, as a 1-8 road record clearly suggests. Oddly enough, their lone road win came against No. 8 Florida in Gainesville. That begs the question: What did the Vols do at Florida that they didn't do in their other road tests?
"I think at Florida we all just played together," junior power forward Jeronne Maymon said this week. "It just felt right. It was just there. Everybody was in the right mindset, ready to go. We were locked in, as Coach likes to say. We just have to be locked in for these next two road games (South Carolina, LSU) and make sure we get some wins."
The key to getting wins at Columbia tonight and Baton Rouge on Wednesday is simple: Play on the road the same way the Vols play at home. Tennessee tends to make few turnovers at Thompson-Boling Arena, which is why the Vols are 13-3 at home this season. Conversely, Tennessee tends to make a lot of turnovers away from home, which is why the Vols are 1-8 on the road this season.
This inability to take care of the ball cost the Vols dearly in close road games at Mississippi State (62-58 loss) and Georgia (57-53 overtime loss).
"The way we defend it's unfortunate some games the way we turn the ball over because we don't give ourselves the ultimate chance to win the ball game," Martin said. "If we cut that down and really take care of the ball anything can happen."
That was obvious Wednesday night against Ole Miss. After committing 10 turnovers en route to a 31-30 halftime deficit, the Vols committed just one post-intermission turnover en route to winning the second half 43-29.
"We relaxed, made sure we made crisp passes," point guard Trae Golden said of the turnover turnaround versus the Rebels. "We did turn it over a lot (early) but that's an area where we're getting better. They threw a lot of defenses at us but I think that's what teams are going to do a lot. We just have to be ready for it."
A prime example of Tennessee's improved ballhandling is sixth man Jordan McRae. After committing 35 turnovers in the first 21 games, an average of 1.7 per contest, he has committed just seven in the past seven games. He played 30 turnover-free minutes against Ole Miss on Wednesday.
"Taking care of the ball is definitely a hard part of basketball," McRae conceded. "As many turnovers as we’ve been having, we’re all trying to start taking more pride in that."
Since bottoming out with a 25-turnover effort Jan. 24 at Vanderbilt, Tennessee has committed 106 in the past eight games, a respectable average of 13.2 per game.
Reduced turnovers is one reason the Vols are 6-2 over the past eight games but not the only reason. They also are shooting better and defending better. As a result, Tennessee finds itself 15-13 overall and tied for fourth in the 12-team SEC with a 7-6 conference record.
"From where we started to where we are now is a credit to the guys, how they approached the game," Martin said. "They continued to get better."
Indeed. A Vol squad that lost at home to a 1-9 Austin Peay team in December now finds itself with an excellent shot at an NIT bid and an outside shot at an NCAA bid. Maymon says the progress hasn't surprised him one bit.
"I've been saying it for the longest time that we were going to get better," he said. "From the early losses I've been saying at the end of the year we'd be here. And here we are."
NOTES: Tennessee has swept the past 10 meetings with South Carolina, winning by an average margin of 13.4 points.... Gamecocks head man Darrin Horn was an assistant at Marquette during the last three years (2000-2002) that Tennessee assistant Jon Harris was a player there.... South Carolina is 10-17 overall and 2-11 in SEC play. The Cocks have lost seven of their last eight games..... Tennessee won the Feb. 8 meeting in Knoxville 69-57 as Skylar McBee scored a career-high 18 points. The Vols shot 50 percent from the field (19 of 38) and from 3-point range (10 of 20) in that game.... Maymon has made 17 of 20 field-goal tries over Tennessee's past three games.... South Carolina is expected to start a lineup of 6-foot-9, 226-pound Damontre Harris (7.0 points, 5.4 rebounds per game), 6-foot-8, 207-pound R.J. Slawson (4.8 points), 6-foot-6, 215-pound Malik Cooke (12.2 points), 6-foot-4, 192-pound Damien Leonard (6.7 points) and 5-foot-9, 197-pound Bruce Ellington (10.4 points, 2.8 assists per game).... Tonight's contest will be televised by FoxSportsNetwork with an 8 o'clock tipoff.