KNOXVILLE — Four games inside the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena sit between Tennessee's basketball team and the start of Southeastern Conference play at LSU in early January.
And the Volunteers need to win all four of them.
The homestand begins tonight with a visit from North Carolina State, and though the Wolfpack lost the core of last season's NCAA tournament team, the Vols need to bounce back from last Saturday's setback at 11th-ranked and unbeaten Wichita State.
"I think we'll be ready to go," third-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said during his radio interview with the Vol Network following the 70-61 loss to the Shockers.
"You have to protect your home court. It's four games, but the most important one is on Wednesday against N.C. State. We have to play hard from the start to finish of the game and secure both ends of the floor. We have to get production around the rim so we can knock those 3-point shots down."
Against Wichita State, Tennessee's big man tandem of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon combined for just 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting. Maymon has just three games of 10 or more points this season, after missing last year, while Stokes has played poorly and battled foul trouble in two of the Vols' three losses.
Fouls limited Stokes to 20 minutes in the season-opening loss at Xavier, and he played just 22 minutes Saturday.
"I think it's tough," Martin said. "Again, him being in foul trouble, obviously it takes a key element away from what we do, a guy that scores around the rim and makes plays. We still gave ourselves opportunities, but again, that's tough. If he's not scoring the ball, and he's in the game without foul trouble, he's still rebounding and he's still active."
With more than half the nonconference schedule complete, Tennessee finds itself in a familiar spot regarding the NCAA tournament. The Vols failed to pick up a truly quality win, though Virginia's visit in 12 days gives Tennessee a chance to pick up a possible RPI top-50 win.
In his first NCAA tournament projection of the season, ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi had Tennessee as one of the final four teams in the 68-team field.
According to ESPN's RPI rankings, Tennessee is No. 95, and that number would have been much higher had the Vols, leading by three midway through the second half, pulled out a win at Wichita State.
Though a road loss to a top-15 team coming off a Final Four appearance is hardly damaging, and Tennessee avenged another one of its losses with a neutral-site throttling of Xavier, the UTEP loss is a blemish that takes away the margin of error from the Vols' resume.
The Miners' RPI already is below 200, and UTEP, which plays in a Conference USA that no longer contains Memphis, faces just two other top-100 opponents all season.
For now, though, the Vols are focused on winning games, which is the best way to mute the frustration that's certainly present after a 6-3 start.
"We have to put this one behind us," said Jordan McRae, Tennessee's leading scorer who scored 26 points in the loss. "We have a quick turnaround. We have to be ready to go."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...