AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin believes the end of a six-game winning streak hasn't slowed the Volunteers' momentum in their drive toward an NCAA tournament bid.
"We just lost a game at Georgia," Martin said Monday. "For us, our guys are playing well. Give Georgia credit for competing and protecting their home court, but I feel we haven't lost anything."
A look at various mock tournament brackets backs up Martin's claim.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi and CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm both have Tennessee making the 68-team field in their respective brackets, even though the Vols fell 78-68 on Saturday to a Georgia team with a losing record. Tennessee got a boost from the fact that plenty of other bubble teams had similarly disappointing weekends.
Alabama lost to Florida. Mississippi fell to Mississippi State, which snapped a 13-game losing streak. Kentucky slipped up at Arkansas. Arizona State's late comeback against USC fell short. Akron stumbled against Buffalo. Baylor collapsed late against Kansas State. Virginia lost at Boston College.
"There's nobody at the bottom of this bracket that belongs in this tournament," Palm said. "(Tennessee's) alive because they've got to take somebody. They're alive, but they've got to avoid more games like Georgia."
That means Tennessee (17-11, 9-7 Southeastern Conference) needs to win Wednesday at Auburn (9-20, 3-13), which has lost 13 times in its last 14 games. It also likely means Tennessee must win its regular-season finale Saturday at home against Missouri (21-8, 10-6), which has gone 2-7 in true road games this season. The Vols also probably have to perform well in the SEC tournament next week in Nashville, Tenn.
"I think the game against Georgia sort of woke us up, I guess, as far as (knowing) that we can't just overlook any opponent," sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes said.
Tennessee also needs junior guard Trae Golden to bounce back from a rare recent subpar performance.
The Vols are at their best when Golden, Stokes and junior guard Jordan McRae are all playing well at the same time. Golden averaged 18.7 points per game during Tennessee's winning streak, but he shot 1 of 10 and scored just four points against Georgia. Stokes shot 3 of 7 and had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Their relative lack of production wasted a spectacular outing from McRae, who shot 10 of 15 overall and 8 of 11 from 3-point range to score a career-high 35 points. Martin believes Golden can shake of his struggles at Georgia.
"Trae knows the system, he knows what we need, he knows what's at stake and what we expect," Martin said. "He has to go out and play. I just think it's one game. We keep moving forward."
This is a familiar scenario for Tennessee.
Last season, Tennessee won eight of its last nine regular-season games to move into position for an NCAA bid, only to settle for an NIT invitation after falling 77-72 to Mississippi in its first SEC tournament game.
"We definitely know how it is," McRae said. "We're in the exact same spot as last year. We definitely know what we've got to do. We don't like to label games as must-wins, but the next two games, we've got to win."
McRae's the player most responsible for getting the Vols into tournament contention.
The 6-foot-5 junior didn't permanently crack the starting lineup until January, but he averages 19.4 points and a league-high 37.7 minutes per game in SEC competition. McRae has averaged 29.8 points over his last four games and has shot 62.5 percent (20 of 32) from 3-point range during that stretch.
Martin spent part of his Monday media luncheon campaigning for McRae as SEC player of the year.
"Jordan McRae, when he's shooting at the level he's shooting the 3-point shot at, with pressure shots (and) guys hovering around him, he gets my vote," Martin said.
McRae appreciates the support, but he's not dwelling on the possibility. The only potential prize that has his attention is the NCAA tournament bid that eluded the Vols last season.
"Of course, it would mean a lot to me, but at this point in the season, I'm not really thinking about anything like that," McRae said. "I'm just trying to win out these last two games."
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