They have pointed to themselves directly after each of Tennessee basketball's tough losses this season, putting the responsibility on them to turn things around.

They are the collective reason why this Vols team was supposed to do what Cuonzo Martin's first two could not — make an NCAA Tournament.

UT's core trio of experienced players — Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes — or "us older guys," as they like to refer to themselves, have been the key to 2013-14 ever since the Vols missed the Big Dance in painful fashion last year.

They have also put the brunt of turning this season around on their shoulders and have so far largely come up empty.

But alas, you can cue the storybook ending for these three Vols if they are able to pull a stunning upset of No. 3 Florida in Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night.

With no other regular season games remaining against ranked foes, McRae, Maymon and Stokes would forgo their last true opportunity to convince the NCAA selection committee of their case to be included in the tournament if they fall short.

A loss would also be a fitting ending for this "Big Three," who have their fair share of big wins but seem to come up short like clockwork when momentum seems to be swinging UT's way.

Despite the shortcomings, there is no doubt these three know the magnitude of their play. The window is closing, and the current season has seen one — or two, or three, or four — too many letdowns.

On paper, the Big Three is crucial to the Vols' successes as they combine for 44.3 points per game — nearly 60 percent of the team's scoring. But it is the leadership and experience brought to the table that puts the outcome of this season solely in their hands.

Take Maymon's comments after a Dec. 18 home loss to N.C. State — one of the biggest douses of kerosene to the fire that is Tennessee fans' discontentment with this year's team.

"We've got older guys, there shouldn't be any collapse right now," Maymon said. "As a leader, what you do is talk to your teammates individually and see where their heads are at."

Take McRae's comments after UT's Wednesday night loss at Vanderbilt — another tough-to-swallow defeat.

"I mean, it's tough for us," McRae said, "but we just got to make sure everyone on the team doesn't stop and keeps going harder in practice, doing everyday things like that."

After the N.C. State loss, the Vols rallied around their experience-laden leaders and embarked on the season's longest win streak — four games.

Coming off the Vandy defeat, UT dominated South Carolina 72-53 on Saturday and would need to upset the third-ranked team in the nation to continue its winning ways.

Martin knows better than anyone of the impact of these three players, as he shared after the South Carolina win on Saturday after being questioned about the notion that his team is dependent on McRae.

"Well, I think they're dependent on those three guys: Jordan, Jeronne and Jarnell," Martin said. "Those three guys have to play well for us to be successful. But, you can say that for every team — successful team — in America."

"Successful" is the key word. To some, SEC prominence and a rebuilt program means Tennessee basketball has indeed been successful. To others, three letters despised by any college hoops fan — NIT — indicate otherwise. ​

As if there wasn't enough to play for this season with the postseason on the line, McRae, Maymon and Stokes could also leave Rocky Top in shambles if they fail to finish strong. With little experience returning next season and an already apathetic fan base, Vol fans need something to rally around heading into next year.

The fate of this season, and perhaps the reputation of UT's coach moving forward, lies solely on the shoulders of three star Vols. Each will finish as an all-time great in Tennessee basketball history, with one last chance to write their legacy.

Steven Cook is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at