Halfway through Southeastern Conference play, Tennessee was lost in the shuffle.
Lately, the Vols have been harder to ignore.
With four regular-season games remaining, they find themselves in a three-way tie for sixth place but in the midst of the conference’s longest active winning streak — five straight. That includes a blowout of then-No. 25 Kentucky more than a week ago. They also drew national recognition for winning the longest game in school history on Saturday — a four-overtime thriller at Texas A&M.
A win against No. 8 Florida on Tuesday in Knoxville (8 p.m., ESPN) certainly would keep the Vols (16-10, 8-6) relevant. Not to mention, it would strengthen their case for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
“You are talking about a potential Final Four team coming in, a team that you feel if you beat you have a great opportunity to enhance your profile as an NCAA tournament team,” coach Cuonzo Martin said on Monday at his weekly press conference. “[The players] understand that part, but for us as a coaching staff it is one game at a time, let’s do everything in our power to win this one particular game, which is easier said than done because of the emotions, the adrenaline.”
A month ago, the Vols looked destined for the NIT — or worse — when they sputtered to a 3-6 start in SEC play.
The current win streak coincides with the return of Trae Golden, who Monday was named the conference's player of the week for the second time this season.
Before Tennessee’s 66-61 win over South Carolina on Feb. 10, Golden had missed two straight games with a hamstring injury. The next game, against Vanderbilt, he was in the starting lineup for the first time in more than a month.
During the win streak, he is averaging 20.8 points and 4.8 assists. Against Texas A&M, he played 56 minutes and scored 15 of his career-high 32 points after regulation. He made a jumper with 18 seconds left to force a second overtime and then he hit consecutive jumpers in fourth overtime to help Tennessee pull away for the 93-85 victory.
“I knew it was just a matter of time before he got back to his old self,” guard Jordan McRae said. “That is what we need from him, for him just to be aggressive and take over the game.”
The offensive combination of Golden, McRae and Jarnell Stokes has been arguably the conference’s best threesome lately. The trio accounts for 40 points a game or more than 60 percent of Tennessee’s offense.
First-place Florida (22-4, 12-2) probably presents the toughest test for the trifecta. The Gators allow just 53.1 points a game, which is the third-best mark in Division I.
The Vols, however, carry some confidence into the matchup knowing they’ve knocked off talented Florida teams before. In fact, they swept the regular-season series last year when Florida, including a 75-70 win in Gainesville, when the Gators were ranked eighth.
“The question is would I rather play somebody that I have beat before than I haven’t? Yes. I think it does give you a certain level of confidence to know you have beat that team,” senior guard Skylar McBee said. “Florida is a good team and they have been ever since I’ve been here. It has been the roll of dice whether we come out on top in a lot of those games. They got a lot of guys that are very talented. There is a certain level of confidence there but we know it is going to be a dog fight.”