Gonzaga shook it with an 89-79 overtime win on Jan. 7. Kentucky wrecked it with a 90-72 romp on Jan. 13. Then Memphis demolished it with a 54-52 squeaker last Saturday.
So, after losing just two of their first 52 home games under Bruce Pearl, the Vols have dropped three of their last four.
“We've lost more in three weeks than we lost in three years at home,” Pearl noted during his Monday media luncheon, grinning smugly as he added: “Do you like that line? That's pretty good. You might want to use that this afternoon.”
With their home-floor mystique evaporated, the 2008-09 Vols already have lost more games (6) than they did all of last season (5). They've dropped out of the top 25 and they've shown upcoming visitors LSU (Wednesday) and Florida (Saturday) that the Big Orange can be had at home.
“Yeah, you probably do feel that,” Pearl said. “You begin to feel some pressure. But, as much as this team has evolved, we are still absolutely in position to do everything we set out to do.”
That's probably true. The home-floor losses to Gonzaga and Memphis were non-conference games that will hurt the Vols' seeding at NCAA Tournament time but won't hurt their chances of repeating as SEC champs. With a 3-1 league record, Tennessee still has a good shot at another conference title if it can beat LSU and Florida in the days ahead.
“This is a crucial, crucial week,” Pearl said. “These are must-win games at home against teams we're competing with for the SEC championship at a time when we've lost some of that (aura of) invincibility.”
To his credit, the Vol coach noted that UT fans did their part to keep the home streak intact. They showed up in large numbers and cheered loudly during the recent home-floor slump.
“We've had four of the top 20 crowds in the country already, and College GameDay's not even been here yet,” Pearl noted. “It's just unbelievable – the support and the passion.”
Encountering Monte Kiffin in the UT weight room this morning, Pearl realized that the football team's new defensive coordinator also has developed a keen appreciation for Tennessee basketball fans.
“He was amazed and he was impressed about the intensity, the pageantry and the passion,” Pearl said. “He said that environment really has helped them (football staffers) with their energy level, as far as recruiting is concerned.
“And I know that energy level helped our team. I know it has. I appreciate so much our fans for being right there with us. I thought there were many times they really got on their feet and contributed to our defensive effort in bothering Memphis.”
Now if the fans can just figure out a way to cheer Tennessee into a higher shooting percentage, the Vols' aura of invincibility at Thompson-Boling Arena might return in short order.