KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee never has earned back-to-back Southeastern Conference championships, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament or a spot in the Final Four.
Yet all three of those milestones are within reach for the fifth-ranked Volunteers as they head into the final week of the regular season.
"They started out about a year ago this time knowing they wanted to be a better team this year than they were last year," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Monday. "They have done that in a lot of ways and have put themselves back in position to have another great year. We have to finish it."
After sharing the SEC title with Auburn last year, Tennessee (26-3, 14-2 SEC) is tied with No. 10 LSU (24-5, 14-2) for first place in the league standings this season. If Tennessee and LSU finish in a tie, LSU would get the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament next week at Nashville, Tennessee, because it beat the Vols in their lone regular-season meeting.
Tennessee closes the regular season by hosting Mississippi State (21-8, 9-7) on Tuesday and visiting Auburn (20-9, 9-7) on Saturday.
"It's a very critical time of the year," Tennessee guard Jordan Bone said Saturday after the Vols' 71-52 victory over No. 6 Kentucky. "There's no time to go back, take backpedals. There's no time to revert to old bad habits. We've all got to be locked in and we've got to be sharp."
A second straight SEC championship would strengthen Tennessee's case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament as the Vols continue chasing that elusive Final Four appearance. Tennessee is fourth in the NET rankings.
Tennessee's highest NCAA Tournament seeding was a No. 2 seed in 2006 and 2008. Tennessee earned a No. 3 seed last year and lost to Loyola-Chicago in the second round.
The closest Tennessee has come to a Final Four was in 2010, when the sixth-seeded Vols reached a regional final before losing 70-69 to Michigan State.
Tennessee's challenge now is to stay focused on the task at hand rather than thinking about what it could accomplish later this month.
"As much as anything, it's the respect for your preparation," Barnes said. "You know you have to get ready. Everybody wants to win when the referee throws it up. It's do you want to win two days out? A day out? Are you going to do the right things to get yourself ready? We have to stay focused there and whatever the outcome is, you have to get ready to do it again. It's a matter of are you mentally tough enough to sustain what it takes to finish what you set out to do."
Tennessee knows the dangers of getting distracted.
The Vols say they got too comfortable during a 19-game winning streak in which they owned the No. 1 ranking for nearly a month. Then came a three-game stretch that included an 86-69 loss at Kentucky and an 82-80 loss at LSU.
"We needed that to really snap into reality and realize this isn't going to be an easy road," Bone said of the loss to Kentucky. "We definitely learned from that."
Tennessee responded last week by winning 73-71 at Mississippi and romping in a rematch with Kentucky. Tennessee held Kentucky to its lowest single-game point total since a 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the 2013 SEC Tournament.
That performance showed Tennessee recapturing the defensive intensity that was a hallmark of last year's team. Tennessee suffocated Kentucky's offense even though starting forward Kyle Alexander played just 12 minutes before fouling out.
Alexander's foul trouble remains an ongoing issue. Four times in the last 11 games, the 6-foot-11 senior has fouled out after playing fewer than 19 minutes.
"He gets some tough calls," Barnes said. "He really does. ... It's going to break for him, I really believe that. The last two games, he has played well. He really has. He knows what he needs to do. He has got to stay aggressive. If he is not, that is when he is not a factor."
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