KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee believes it's on the verge of producing a second consecutive late-season surge.
One year ago, Tennessee was 10-12 before winning eight of its last nine regular-season games and barely missing out on a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
This year's Tennessee team had been one of the Southeastern Conference's bigger disappointments for much of the season, but the Volunteers (14-10, 6-6 SEC) carry a three-game winning streak into Tuesday's game with LSU (15-8, 6-6).
"We just kept reminding ourselves that there's a chance to turn it around," junior guard Jordan McRae said. "Not to just reflect on last year, but knowing we'd been there before, there's always a chance to turn it around."
Tennessee followed up victories at South Carolina and Vanderbilt — their first true road wins of the season — with an 88-58 drubbing of Kentucky on Saturday that represented the Vols' most one-sided victory in that rivalry's 216-game history.
"Tennessee would have beaten probably anyone in the country the way they played on Saturday," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
If only Tennessee had played at close to this level earlier in the season, the Vols would be assured of a spot in the NCAA tournament. Tennessee instead needs the same type of finish as last year to have any shot of an invitation. Although the Vols rose seven spots in the RPI rankings released Monday, they're still only 69th.
Jerry Palm, who produces a mock NCAA tournament bracket for CBSSports.com, said Tennessee wouldn't even be in the discussion for a bid at this point.
"If they win their next three games, ask me again," said Palm, referring to a stretch that includes Tuesday's meeting with LSU, Saturday's trip to Texas A&M and a Feb. 26 home game with No. 5 Florida.
Tennessee's slow start last year in Cuonzo Martin's debut season as coach was easy to explain. The Vols were still adjusting to Martin's approach, and they lost four starters from the previous season.
The early struggles this season were more of a surprise. Tennessee returned the nucleus of last year's team, but injuries and inconsistency prevented the Vols from meeting expectations.
Senior forward Jeronne Maymon, a second-team all-SEC selection last year, won't play this season because of an injured left knee. Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes battled foul trouble early in the year. Junior guard Trae Golden struggled and missed two games with a strained right hamstring.
Although Martin made plenty of lineup changes, he didn't alter his coaching approach amid the early-season struggles.
"You've got to give guys a level of confidence," said Martin, who previously coached at Missouri State. "You can't beat guys up or make them feel uncomfortable or make practice where they hate coming to practice. That's part of it. You lost some games. You learn from it. I think our problems were things we could correct. It's not a case where we were outmanned or the other team was that much better."
Tennessee finally is realizing what it can do when Stokes, Golden and McRae are all playing well at the same time.
"Tennessee's probably playing as well as anyone in our league right now," LSU coach Johnny Jones said.
Stokes put together six straight double-doubles before settling for nine points and nine rebounds against Kentucky. McRae had his first double-double of the season Wednesday with 14 points and 11 rebounds at Vanderbilt. But the biggest transformation has come from Golden.
In the three games since his return from a hamstring injury, Golden has shot 50 percent from the field while averaging 17.3 points, 4 assists and just 1.3 turnovers. The 6-foot-2 junior had 24 points, eight assists and no turnovers against Kentucky.
"I don't think Jarnell and Trae were at the level they were capable of playing at early in the season, especially the way Jarnell's playing now and Trae's playing now," Martin said. "They're two different players. That has a lot to do with it. Whenever your best guys aren't at their best, obviously things fall apart, and so now you have to compensate on different areas."
Tennessee also is playing better defense. During its winning streak, Tennessee has allowed just 55 points per game and has averaged 6 blocks and 5.7 steals per game. The Vols also have benefited from switching to a four-guard lineup the last two games.
The Vols now face an LSU team making its own late-season rush. After losing its first four SEC games, LSU has won six of its last eight in Jones' debut season. The Tigers' recent progress is similar to the late-season surge Tennessee made in Martin's first year on the job.
Tennessee has no margin for error and can't allow a short winning streak to produce overconfidence. Martin doesn't expect that to be a problem and joked Monday that "it's not like we have cake and ice cream" after each win.
"I'd rather have them happy than sad, because I've seen sad," Martin said. "And I don't sleep when they're sad."