KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes isn’t satisfied.
While he is pleased the Volunteers have risen to their highest ranking since December 2010, Barnes sees plenty of room for improvement.
Barnes wants to ensure his 18th-ranked Vols avoid another of those February fades that tainted the first two years of his Tennessee tenure. Barnes is counting on the memories of those slides to prevent history from repeating itself.
“That’s what you hope, when your team starts getting older, that they realize this is the month when things start to get separated,” Barnes said. “If you want to be one of those teams that people are talking about in another month, this month’s important.”
Tennessee rose four spots in the Top 25 after a week in which it beat Vanderbilt 67-62 at home and posted a 68-45 Big12/SEC Challenge victory at Iowa State that represented the Cyclones’ most lopsided home loss since 1959.
The Vols (15-5, 5-3 SEC) have won six of their last seven games to move closer to their first NCAA Tournament bid since a regional semifinal appearance in 2014. They’re tied for third in the Southeastern Conference standings , two games behind No. 11 Auburn (19-2, 7-1).
Tennessee hosts LSU (11-9, 2-7) on Wednesday in the first of two straight games at Thompson-Boling Arena, where the Vols’ average attendance of 16,003 ranks eighth nationally and represents a 17.3 percent increase over last year’s final average of 13,637.
Being in good position in late January doesn’t guarantee anything in March.
Tennessee was 13-9 and on the NCAA Tournament bubble last season before losing seven of its last 10 games, as leading scorer Robert Hubbs III played down the stretch with a knee injury that limited his effectiveness. The Vols also dropped seven of their last 10 games in 2015-16 and couldn’t recover after leading scorer Kevin Punter Jr. had a season-ending foot injury.
Barnes believes the depth of the SEC makes it imperative that Tennessee not take anything for granted. He said Tennessee must upgrade its rebounding, ball-screen defense and overall offensive execution while also improving the consistency of its work ethic in each and every game.
“I’ll be shocked if the winner of this league doesn’t have four, five or six losses,” Barnes said. “This league is that good. If our guys at this point in time think they can take any nights off, we won’t win. It’s plain and simple.”
Bench strength and improved defense have played major roles in Tennessee’s surge. After losing its first two SEC games and yielding at least 94 points in each of them, Tennessee has allowed just 62.3 points per game over its last seven contests.
During its current three-game winning streak, Tennessee has outscored its opponents 90-40 in bench points. Sophomore guard Lamonte’ Turner has led the way by scoring 20 points off the bench against Iowa State and 25 in a 70-63 victory at South Carolina . Turner also hasn’t committed a turnover in his last 79 minutes.
Barnes says he doesn’t plan to move Turner into the starting lineup and noted that “I think Lamonte’ would probably tell you he’d rather be a finisher than a starter anyway.” Turner’s production reflects the improved depth that has created more competition while making Tennessee more capable of surviving an injury to a key performer than it was in the past.
“Maybe (if) we get hurt, we can overcome some things we haven’t been able to do in the past,” Barnes said. “Also, if guys want to take things for granted, there’s someone waiting there to take those minutes.”
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee