Jordan McRae fully understands what's at stake for Tennessee's basketball team the next few weeks, even if the Vols' wing doesn't always recall which days those stakes are raised.
With the Vols (5-3) coming off their best win of the young season, a 69-60 defeat of then-No. 23 and previously unbeaten Wichita State, McRae and several other members of the UT program know the time is now to capitalize. Tennessee hosts Presbyterian tonight at 7 inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
"If we can go into SEC play 9-3 then we'll be in great shape," McRae said. "We just need to capitalize on these games we have at home."
How much is that 9-3 target discussed?
"Other than me just saying it, it's probably the first time it's been said," McRae, who had 17 points against the Shockers, laughed. "We don't really talk about it at all. We're just focusing on one game at a time. But I definitely know how many games we've got. I might not know which days they are, but I know how many games we've got."
Even head coach Cuonzo Martin readily acknowledges the bottom-line goal of this six-game homestand, which includes higher-profile meetings with Xavier and Memphis after Christmas.
"Ws. Trying to get wins. I think that's the most important thing," Martin said of what his team must glean from this home stretch. "You've got to get better. You're trying to get wins out of it. I think that's the biggest thing we have to do, we have to continue to win and protect your home court. However you have to do it, you've got to protect your home court."
The Vols can do that by keeping Trae Golden, the reigning SEC Player of the Week for his 25-point explosion against Wichita State, rolling and continuing to progress on the perimeter. Tennessee's offensive struggles have been well-chronicled, particularly after managing just a combined 74 points in back-to-back losses at Georgetown and Virginia, but Golden believes the Vols are pushing forward. He admits the relative offensive outburst against Wichita provides some relief.
"Yeah, definitely, just so everybody can kind of stop talking about it. Just hovering over 40 points. We knew we had the ability to score; just being able to do that against a very good team so that just helped us out a lot," Golden said. "I think it was just mental with us. Once we got past that hump, everything was just fine for us."
The Vols expect to see plenty of zone defense again tonight from the Blue Hose (2-8), who also have struggled offensively this season. Presbyterian has been held under 60 points in each of its eight defeats, and it owns just one win against a Division I team.
Martin stresses his Tennessee squad maintain a steady approach.
"You take it one game at a time. I thought we were more aggressive playing at home," Martin said. "Of course it's different playing at home, but I thought guys were in attack mode and that was good.
"They'll probably play zone the whole game, so it will be a good test for our guys. But for us we've got to get out and run. We've spent a lot of time in transition, whether it's zone or man."
An additional transition for the Vols has been at the backup point guard slot, where former Knoxville Austin-East standout Brandon Lopez has carved his role. Lopez has started to emerge as the Vols' best option to spell the invaluable Golden.
"I mainly just come in and try to play as hard as I can and lead the team and mainly defensively and try to help us get a win in my minutes that I do have," Lopez said. "A lot [of pride to have no drop-off] because he plays as hard as he possibly can every rep, defensively and offensively, so I don't want to take that in vain. Just kind of like because him coming in and him leaving the court, we don't really want to miss a beat."
Martin indicated that both players have spurred each other to perform better.
"I think they've really helped each other," Martin said. "One thing Trae does is he stays aggressive in attack mode offensively, so that puts pressure on Brandon to defend at a high level. But it helps Brandon defend when he pressures Trae full-court. …
"The thing about our guys, you earn the minutes you get. (Lopez) been consistent with it. He's earned the minutes."
Golden just wants the Vols to keep earning the opportunities coming at home before SEC play begins when Ole Miss visits Jan. 9.
"It's huge. Our next few games are going to lead into conference play," Golden said. "So we've just got to make sure we keep playing well and everybody's being aggressive. That's the biggest key for us."