KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes understands what's at stake as the Volunteers head into the final month of the regular season.

He wants to make sure his young team is ready to do something about it.

 
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The Vols (12-9, 4-4 SEC) just went 3-0 during a home stretch that included an 82-80 upset of No. 8 Kentucky, which was ranked fourth at the time of the game. That surge has made Tennessee a potential NCAA tournament contender if it can maintain this momentum.

"It's there," Barnes said. "To act like they don't read about it, you'd be living a lie if you thought that. But the fact is we've got to make sure they know how to channel their energies to the process that we're going through."

Tennessee's postseason aspirations could become clearer during an upcoming two-game road trip. The Vols visit Auburn (14-7, 3-5) on Tuesday and Mississippi State (13-7, 4-4) on Saturday.

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Although Tennessee's 12-9 record isn't particularly impressive, the Vols are 41st overall and fifth among SEC teams in the RPI. Tennessee has played a schedule ranked by statistical analyst Ken Pomeroy as the toughest in the country.

That makes Tennessee an intriguing postseason possibility if it can improve its record over the final month.

"You don't want to hide from it," Barnes said. "You have to embrace it. But you also have to understand that talking about it's not going to get it done. What's going to get it done is to do your job. That means getting prepared. We've got to continue to get better as a team.

"That's what happens this time of year. The teams that always stay in the conversation with postseason play are those teams that stay on task. They understand that you've got to get better in different aspects of what you're doing as a team and you have to get better as individuals."

The fact Tennessee could merit NCAA tournament consideration at all is a surprising development.

Tennessee had to replace three of the top four scorers from a team that went 15-19 last season. The Vols were picked before the season to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference. They regularly start three freshmen, none of whom were big names upon arriving on campus.

Yet they've gotten better as the season has worn on even while playing at less than full strength.

Guard Jordan Bone missed nine games with a stress fracture in his foot. Forward John Fulkerson hasn't played since mid-December due to a dislocated elbow. Guard Detrick Mostella was Tennessee's second-leading scorer when he got dismissed from the team on Jan. 10.

"I feel like we're maturing a little bit," freshman forward Grant Williams said after the Kansas State game, "but we have a test at Auburn and we have to keep it going."

Senior guard Robert Hubbs III, the reigning SEC player of the week, has provided steadiness and leadership for a team relying heavily on newcomers. Tennessee also has shown its toughness by going 3-3 in true games after posting a 1-11 record in those situations last season.

The Vols' improved ability to take care of the ball has proved critical. In their nine losses this season, Tennessee has averaged 15.6 turnovers and 10.6 assists. During this three-game winning streak, the Vols have averaged 18 assists and just 9.3 turnovers.

"I definitely think we're getting more mature," redshirt freshman guard Lamonte Turner said. "Guys are starting to really understand their roles and what this team needs of them. I think we're growing up."

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Turner, the team leader in assists, is part of a strong Tennessee bench that has played a major role in the Vols' improvement. Reserves have averaged 30 points per game — up from 19.2 last season — to account for 39 percent of Tennessee's scoring. Tennessee's bench outscored Kentucky's reserves 37-4 on Tuesday.

This article was written by Steve Megargee from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.