The Volunteers (9-4) carry a three-game winning streak into tonight’s Southeastern Conference opener at LSU (9-3). Now the Vols need to prove they can win on the road, which has been a problem lately.
“We’re playing good on both sides of the ball,” said Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, the reigning SEC player of the week. “That’s just us trusting each other, moving the ball, making extra passes and things like that.”
Tennessee expects to have freshman guard Robert Hubbs III back after an injured left shoulder caused him to miss a 98-51 victory over Tusculum on Saturday. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Hubbs practiced Sunday and should play Tuesday.
The Vols are 35-9 at home and 7-17 in true road games during Martin’s three-year coaching tenure, though they won four of their final five SEC road games last season. In the Vols’ only two true road games this season, they fell 67-63 at Xavier and 70-61 to No. 6 Wichita State, which was ranked 12th at the time of their Dec. 14 meeting.
“I talk to the guys all the time (that) it’s just a different building, that’s all,” Martin said. “The rims, the court, everything’s still the same. It’s just a different building. Our approach doesn’t change.”
Tennessee’s had a habit of slow starts and fast finishes. The Vols started 8-10 and ended up 19-15 in 2011-12. They finished 20-13 after an 11-10 start last season. They won only six of their first 10 games this year and held a team meeting after a 65-58 loss to North Carolina State.
The Vols haven’t lost since.
“The meeting was more or less for us to tell each other how we felt about things,” McRae said. “Players hearing things from coaches is one thing. If you can have one of your teammates say, ‘Jordan, you need to do this better,’ ‘Jordan, you need to do that better,’ and you have the whole team there, I think it helps you out as a player, hearing it from one of your friends, one of the people you’re with all the time. I just think it was just us holding each other accountable.”
Tennessee has shot 50 percent or better in each of its last three games and now faces an LSU team that leads the SEC in field-goal percentage defense (.375). The Tigers are coming off a 74-70 home loss to Rhode Island.
“We can’t come out flat like we did,” LSU guard Anthony Hickey said after the Rhode Island game. “If we come out flat, we will get beat every time. It catches up with you at the end of the game. It is all about starting early and taking care of business early.”
Tennessee could be benefiting from a change in Martin’s approach.
Martin said he generally hasn’t been big on statistical analysis because he’s “always been a guy to go by what my eyes see,” but he’s breaking down the numbers more this season. He’s studied which lineups were on the floor during hot stretches and cold spells.