Fresh from eight wins in their final nine regular-season games, the Tennessee Vols are riding a tidal wave of momentum heading into the SEC basketball tournament ... which means absolutely nothing.
The Big Orange learned that lesson the hard way last March. Cuonzo Martin's troops were fresh from eight wins in their final nine regular-season games then, too, but the momentum evaporated when the second-seeded Big Orange suffered a 77-72 loss to seventh-seeded Ole Miss. The setback not only killed Tennessee's momentum; it culled the team from the NCAA Tournament field.
Twelve months have passed, yet that ugly memory hasn't faded.
"We had won eight out of nine last year, and I think we were feeling ourselves a little bit," junior Jordan McRae recalled. "Now we just have to go in there with our hard hats on and be ready to go."
Tennessee's hard hats will be tested today by No. 13 seed Mississippi State, which used a 1-3-1 zone to upset No. 12 South Carolina 70-59 Wednesday night in first-round action.
Sophomore wing Josh Richardson says the fifth-seeded Vols won't take today's opponent lightly ... a mistake they made in last year's tourney opener at New Orleans.
"You can't overlook anybody," he said. "Ole Miss came out and just kicked us last year. We've got to come out focused. We weren't really focused last year. We got a day off and guys started relaxing. We can't do that this year."
Sophomore post Jarnell Stokes believes the Vols let last year's big finish go to their heads. He insists that won't happen this year.
"We learned that we've got to bring our hard hat," he said. "We were playing so good going into it. Then we lost that game to Ole Miss, and that really hurt us. Knowing the atmosphere and knowing we could lose is the biggest thing."
Junior point guard Trae Golden thinks Tennessee's No. 2 seeding for the 2012 SEC Tournament created a false sense of security. He believes he and his teammates gained a valuable lesson in the loss to Ole Miss.
"Don't look ahead," he said. "Make sure you go in looking at the game that's there and focus on it. If we do that, I think we'll be fine."
After going 4-2 in November, 4-1 in December, 3-5 in January and starting February 0-2, the current Vols jelled and went 8-1 over the past five weeks. Golden says the rally is easily explained.
"Everybody's playing their role," he said, "and that should go a very long way for us. If everybody plays their role, it's obvious to see the results we have: We're winning."
Of course, the Vols were winning when they began play in the 2012 SEC Tournament, too. That's why they need to wipe the slate clean before facing Mississippi State today at 2:30 Central (3:30 Eastern) in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.
"We just have to forget about these (last nine) games and act like it's the start of a new season," Stokes said. "We have to understand what happened last year with the SEC Tournament -- we can lose -- so I think we'll be prepared this time."
Martin is on record saying Tennessee (19-11 overall, 11-7 SEC) already has earned an NCAA Tournament bid. Stokes tends to agree.
"I think we should be in but we can't play like that," he said. "We saw what happened last year with Ole Miss. That's definitely in the back of our heads going into this tournament."
Tennessee may have choked last March in New Orleans, shooting a frigid 28.1 percent in the loss to Ole Miss. The 2012-13 team has more veteran leadership, and that should be a positive influence.
"I think that will help a lot," Richardson said. "We'll keep our composure going in. Guys can't be nervous this year. Everybody's played in an SEC Tournament now, pretty much, so I think we'll be fine."