That's why today's 1:30 tipoff at South Carolina is crucial. At 19-6 overall and 7-4 in SEC play, the Vols need a strong finish in their last five regular-season games to earn a decent seeding for The Big Dance.
"In the middle of February you've got a lot of stress because you're playing for the NCAA Tournament and that seed you really want," senior post Wayne Chism said. "If you're a bottom team playing the No. 1 seed it's kind of tough."
The Vols learned that lesson the hard way a year ago by finishing the 2008-09 regular-season at 19-11 overall and 10-6 in league play. After winning twice before losing in the SEC Tournament finals, the Big Orange got stuck with a 9 seed and lost to 8 seed Oklahoma State in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament.
"You don't want to go into that tournament like that," Chism said. "We want to play our way into a good seed, so we can move on in the NCAA Tournament."
Although Tennessee trounced South Carolina by 26 points (79-53) Feb. 6 in Knoxville, head coach Bruce Pearl says that means nothing heading into the rematch at Columbia.
"South Carolina is 11-2 at home, including the win over Kentucky," he said. "They've played really, really well at home.
"The challenge there is that we probably played as well as we have all year - both ends of the floor - against South Carolina (at Knoxville) and they probably didn't play very well that day. You add those two things together, and there's your margin."
NOTES: South Carolina brings a 14-11 overall record and a 5-6 SEC mark into today's game.... Chism scored a career-high 30 points against the Gamecocks on Feb. 6 and will reach another milestone against them today. This will be his 131st game as a Vol, breaking the record of 130 set by Rob Jones from 1982-86.... Tennessee has won the last six games vs. South Carolina, going 3-0 in Knoxville, 2-0 in Columbia and 1-0 in the SEC Tournament.... Senior point guard Devan Downey has scored 42 percent of South Carolina's points in SEC play (317 of 755).... Downey ranks fourth nationally in scoring at 23.0 points per game and third nationally in steals at 2.9 per game.... Other double-figure scorers for Carolina are 6-2 guard Brandis Raley-Ross (11.2 points per game) and 6-9, 220-pound Sam Muldrow (10.1). Muldrow leads the Gamecocks in rebounding at 6.4 per game, while Downey leads in assists at 3.6 per game.... Today's game will be televised by the SEC Network. UT previously appeared on the network in home-floor defeats of Ole Miss (71-69 in overtime) on Jan. 16 and Georgia (69-60) last Wednesday.