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Vols' season starts anew Thursday

ATLANTA — Tennessee’s first matchup with Arkansas foreshadowed a frustratingly inconsistent SEC regular season.

Tennessee's players hope to do a little more celebrating in the postseason than they did the past two months.

“We played a horrible game over there; horrible, man,” UT senior center Brian Williams said. “I think it’s one of the worst game we played, collectively. Everybody played horrible.”

If that loss was the intial igniter, could the Volunteers’ second matchup with the Razorbacks — Thursday’s first-round SEC tournament game in the Georgia Dome — be the start of a solid postseason?

“Got to, man. Got to,” UT junior All-SEC guard Scotty Hopson said. “It’s tournament time.”

The Vols hope tournament time starts better than SEC regular season time. With then-suspended coach Bruce Pearl pacing maniacally in a hotel room across town from Bud Walton Arena on Jan. 8, UT battled back from a 13-point, second-half deficit before falling just short in a 68-65 loss.

Freshman forward Tobias Harris, who missed a clean-but-rushed look from 3-point range that would have tied the score as time expired, said the loss in Fayeteville set a poor tone for the Vols’ SEC schedule.

“As a team, we know that getting into that position is not where we should have been,” said Harris, who earlier this week was named second team All-SEC. “We have to close out games earlier and not be stuck in the last second shots.

“Coming into this game, we know ... just to play our hardest and try to get the game over with pretty early and close out the other team.”

UT never learned that lesson during the regular season.

Tennessee freshman Tobias Harris on whether Thursday's SEC tournament opener will be the start of a solid postseason: "It has to be."

Thursday starts a new season, though.

“It’s definitely a new start,” said junior guard Cameron Tatum, whose inconsistencies have been a direct reflection of his team’s. “I hope everybody goes out there with that mindset, and I think we will. I think we understand what’s at stake. We’ve got a lot of guys from last year’s team on here, as well, that understand it’s win or go home. We’ve got to come out here and play with an extreme amount of intensity.

“The SEC tournament, on into the NCAA tournament, there’s no laughing matter, no games, none of that. We’ve just got to go in there with an extreme amount of focus.”

Hopson, a first team All-SEC player whose three-week streak of exceptional play was halted in Sunday’s home loss to Kentucky — UT would have earned a first-round bye with a win that day — said the Vols shouldn’t completely reset their minds after the regular season.

“It’s hard to wipe it out, because what’s done in the past, you’re still going to reflect on that at times,” Hopson said. “It just comes with focus and that attention to detail. You’ve got to be strong down the stretch. You’ve got to be mentally and physically tough, just to finish off games and make game-winning plays. That’s where it counts.

“You can’t dwell on the past, but you’ve got to understand it, learn from it and go on to the future.”

Tatum used the word “payback,” and Hopson went with “revenge,” but UT has a chance to atone for three tough losses in the tournament’s first two days. If the Vols beat the Razorbacks, they’ll get another shot at SEC regular-season champion Florida — which outlasted UT in two tight games the past two months.

But the Hogs come first.

Tennessee's Cameron Tatum on the postseason: "No laughing matter, no games, none of that."

The Gators only come into the picture if the Vols beat Arkansas.

“They brought the fight to us at their place,” Tatum said of the Razorbacks. “They took it to us early in the first half, and we didn’t respond well. We went into halftime and made some adjustments, talked about what we needed to do and things like that. We came out and played better, but we should have never gotten into that position in the first place. It was tough to come back from, but we made a fight out of it.

“It’s always nice to get another shot at teams that beat you. If you’re a competitor, you always want another shot. ...We’ve got to look to get payback for that.”

Will Thursday truly be the start of a special postseason, though?

“It has to be,” Harris said. “I think we're about to find out who really wants it on this team — who wants to win a national championship and get far in the (NCAA) tournament — just by the way we play. This is a must-win for us. The whole SEC tournament is a must-win for us.

“You’ve got to think about it like that. It’s a must-win. I think we all know that. Whether or not we’re on the bubble or not, we know it’s a must-win for us just to get some confidence.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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