One round-trip to Starkville, Miss., out of the way, the Tennessee Volunteers' crucial four-game stand to save their season returns home to take on an all too familiar foe.
The Vols basketball team will host the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday at noon inside Thompson-Boling Arena as UT aims for what would be just its second multi-game win streak of the SEC season.
After Wednesday night's 75-68 victory over Mississippi State, the Vols' NCAA Tournament bid is still very much alive. With a weak bubble this year, UT sits as one of the "last four in" according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi and closes out the season with Vandy, at Auburn and home against Missouri.
Pressure on the program has never been higher than after the Vols' loss at Texas A&M over the past weekend. That had Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin simply feeling grateful for the win over the pesky Bulldogs that made it a game late.
"I think for our guys, it's good to get this win," Martin said to reporters after the game. "It seemed as if they were playing with a 15- or 20-pound weight on their backs. Just get it off your back and play basketball.
"I told the guys, 'Whatever happens, happens. We've got to play. We've got to compete.'"
What happened in the second half Wednesday was a Mississippi State revival, threatening a wire-to-wire Vols win by trimming the deficit to four with under two minutes left. UT guard Jordan McRae's 29 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, however, proved to be too much.
McRae doesn't mind making his teammates happy, especially when it involves him scoring the ball and when those teammates are each pushing 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds.
"The team will come to me and be like, 'You gotta score,'" McRae told Bob Kesling and Bert Bertelkamp on the Vol Network broadcast after the game. "When somebody like Jeronne and Jarnell tells me I gotta score for us, I have to.
"I don't think anybody wants to get into a battle with those two."
Back to where it began
Martin isn't known for being keen on changing things up too often. He's now going back on perhaps his biggest change of the season, putting senior point guard Antonio Barton back into the starting lineup over freshman Darius Thompson.
Barton struggled from the field Wednesday — going 1-of-6 with four points — but added four assists and played 28 minutes to Thompson's 12.
His experience and scoring just gives the Vols' offense a bit more to work with, Martin said, shutting down the idea that Thompson's ineffectiveness spurred the move.
"Not necessarily how he struggles," Martin said. "I don't think anyone has played great (at the position). I just think with Antonio's experience, and his threat to score the ball ... an experienced guy down the stretch will allow Darius to relax a little bit and come off the bench."
Martin also announced after the game that Barton would start the rest of the way barring injury.
Thompson averaged just 2.3 points per game and was held scoreless three times in his nine-game stint as starter in SEC play.