Despite two consecutive defeats and every expectation it no longer will be ranked next week, No. 21 Tennessee still figures to have plenty to celebrate Saturday.
The Volunteers (7-3) will play host to Jacksonville State in Knoxville, in what amounts to the last respite on a schedule that has become daunting. It also amounts to the perfect opportunity to get head coach Rick Barnes his 700th career victory.
Barnes is 0-for-2 in his attempt to reach 700 as the Volunteers were upended by a quality Cincinnati team 78-66 on Wednesday after they were knocked off 51-47 by No. 13 Memphis on Saturday. Wednesday's game was Tennessee's first true road game of the season.
The back-to-back defeats mark the first time Tennessee has lost consecutive games since Dec. 30, 2017 to Arkansas and Jan. 2, 2018 to Auburn.
"When guys start thinking, 'OK, I have to go do it myself,' we don't have a team like that," Barnes told reporters. "And if it takes more of these losses to prove it to them, that's what will happen. We've got to be a team. We don't have one guy we can rely on to go get a basket (by himself)."
Barnes is 699-367 over 33 seasons at George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas and Tennessee. He has the seventh-most victories among active coaches and needs five victories to reach the 100 mark at Tennessee. Only 21 coaches in history have reached 700 victories.
Jacksonville State figures to get all Tennessee has to offer, especially from a defense that will be motivated to prove itself again. That group came into the week with the fifth-best field-goal defense in the country after opponents were shooting 36.2 percent.
Cincinnati bucked that trend Wednesday, shooting 56.4 percent from the field (31 of 55) and 33.3 percent from 3-point range (5 of 15). The first half was even worse for the Vols as the Bearcats shot 64 percent from the field and made half of their 3-point attempts. Other areas were a problem as well on Wednesday as the Bearcats also had a 32-21 rebounding advantage.
"It was awful," Barnes said. "And I'm really disappointed in our defensive breakdown. It came from our older guys and that is the most disappointing thing too."
Tennessee's matchup with the Gamecocks will come a week before they face an unusually pedestrian Wisconsin team. Another week after that, on Jan. 4, is the SEC opener at home against LSU.
Jacksonville State (4-7) will enter Saturday's game off consecutive victories, including a 92-80 decision against Delaware State on Wednesday. Those two victories came after a four-game losing streak that dated back to the last day of November.
"I thought we were pretty good when we moved the ball and shared the ball," head coach Ray Harper said. "We just have to stop turning the ball over and keep getting better."
Jacara Cross led the Gamecocks with a career-high 20 points Wednesday on 9-of-10 shooting, while Ty Hudson also had a career high with 19 points. Five Gamecocks players scored in double figures. Cross leads the team in scoring with 11.5 points per game, while De'Torrion Ware has scored 11.3 per game.
Jacksonville State also has one more nonconference game remaining after Saturday before opening Ohio Valley Conference play Jan. 2 at Morehead State.
--Field Level Media