KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee knows the type of atmosphere it’s about to encounter as the Volunteers go back on the road to protect their No. 1 ranking.
The Vols (18-1, 6-0 SEC) put their 14-game winning streak at stake this week as they play Tuesday at South Carolina (10-9, 5-1) and Saturday at Texas A&M (8-10, 1-5).
Tennessee discovered last week the challenges that accompany going on the road as a top-ranked team. Tennessee trailed most of the second half before rallying for an 88-83 overtime victory at Vanderbilt in front of a sellout crowd of 14,316, a 53 percent increase over Vanderbilt’s average home attendance of 9,366.
“Having a ranking, I think you expect to bring out the best in people,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Monday. “You’re probably surprised when that doesn’t happen.”
The difference is that half the crowd at Vanderbilt was cheering for Tennessee. The Vols won’t have nearly as many of their own fans on hand at South Carolina or Texas A&M.
South Carolina is just a game out of first place in the SEC standings and has improved as much as any team in the conference over the course of the season. Barnes believes the matchup with South Carolina coach Frank Martin would make this a difficult test regardless of any other circumstances.
“Obviously, with a ranking like we have, it will add something to it, certainly,” Barnes said. “His guys are going to play hard. They are going to battle. I respect him so much. It wouldn’t matter if there was a ranking or not. His teams are going to come to play.”
A victory over South Carolina would enable Tennessee to tie a school record with its 15th consecutive win. Tennessee also won 15 straight from 1915-17, a streak that stretched over three separate seasons.
Yet the Vols still don’t have any margin for error in the SEC race.
Tennessee is tied for first place with No. 19 LSU (16-3, 6-0). Tied for second place are South Carolina and No. 7 Kentucky (16-3, 5-1), which owns a six-game winning streak.
The only regular-season meeting between Tennessee and LSU will be Feb. 23 at Baton Rouge. Tennessee visits Kentucky on Feb. 16 and hosts the Wildcats on March 2.
That means Tennessee must continue thriving on the road to remain atop the standings as it chases its second straight league crown. Tennessee shared the SEC title with Auburn last year and never has won back-to-back league championships.
Tennessee has trailed in each of its three SEC road games but has won all of them. The Vols won 87-63 at Missouri and 78-67 at Florida before surviving in overtime at Vanderbilt.
“Every day is a battle,” guard Lamonte’ Turner said Saturday after an 83-66 victory over West Virginia. “We have two tough road games coming up. We have to focus on that. We have to get back into lab, into the gym and into the film room and correct our mistakes and get ready to go.”
Turner’s emergence shows how Barnes is still looking for ways to improve his top-ranked team. Turner scored 23 points against West Virginia in the junior’s first start since the 2017 SEC Tournament.
Barnes said after the game he gave Turner the start ahead of Yves Pons to get two ball handlers in the lineup against West Virginia’s pressure. Barnes said Monday he’s leaning toward keeping Turner in the starting lineup against South Carolina.