- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee faces the possibility of a second straight losing season unless its young roster starts performing more consistently.

The last two games reflect the up-and-down nature of the season for Tennessee, which often starts three freshmen.

Tennessee (9-9, 2-4 SEC) delivered perhaps its most complete performance of the season last week in an 87-75 victory but followed that up by blowing a double-digit lead in an 80-69 loss at Mississippi. The Volunteers will try to get back above the .500 mark Saturday when they host Mississippi State (12-5, 3-2).

“Good teams aren’t going to be .500,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “They’re going to find ways to win even on nights when they’re not feeling great. When you’re playing around .500 basketball, that’s the word - inconsistency.”

Tennessee could benefit from beginning a three-game home stretch Saturday, but one of the puzzling aspects of this team is its recent tendency to perform better on the road. In its first two SEC home games, Tennessee fell 82-78 to Arkansas and 70-60 to No. 24 South Carolina.

The Vols have lost four of their last five games overall, though they seemed on the verge of turning the corner Tuesday. They followed up their impressive performance at Vanderbilt by grabbing a 52-39 lead over Ole Miss, which was playing without injured leading scorer Deandre Burnett.

Then the Rebels outscored Tennessee 41-17 over the last 15 minutes.

“I think we just get complacent,” said forward Lew Evans, one of just two seniors on Tennessee’s roster. “We think that we’ve done something, and we really haven’t. That’s the thing that me and (senior) Robert Hubbs have tried to tell people. It’s an ‘every night’ thing. You have to come out every single night. You can’t just go into Vandy like we did and beat them and come back (against Ole Miss) and just not play how we’re supposed to.”

Tennessee’s struggles shouldn’t come as a surprise. The SEC’s preseason media poll projected the Vols would finish 13th out of 14 teams in the conference.

The Vols had to replace three of their top four scorers from a team that went 15-19 last season. More adversity arose once the season started.

Freshman forward John Fulkerson started six of Tennessee’s first 10 games but hasn’t played since due to a dislocated elbow. Junior guard Detrick Mostella, who was averaging 10.5 points per game, got dismissed from the team last week. Freshman guard Jordan Bone’s progress stalled when he missed nine games with a stress fracture in his foot.

Tennessee’s individual performances reflect the team’s inconsistency.

Bone scored 23 points at Vanderbilt but managed just two against Ole Miss. In his last four games, sophomore forward Admiral Schofield has scored 18, five, 15 and four. Freshman forward Grant Williams had been a steady double-digit scorer in SEC play before getting just five points at Ole Miss.

Tennessee’s most reliable performer has been Hubbs, who averages a team-high 14.4 points.

“That’s what we have to find out going forward with our team and our program, guys we know, ‘Hey, this guy’s getting it,’ ” Barnes said. “I realize that we’re still a young group. They don’t know what it takes yet. They really don’t. You wish that you had some older players that could lead them. I think Robert Hubbs is doing a great job, by the way. I think he’s doing everything he can to get them to understand the sense of urgency, but you wish you had more guys that could show them the way.”

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More AP College Basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org

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Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee

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