KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The national perception of Tennessee's postseason prospects changed as soon as an arrest caused the Volunteers to lose All-SEC forward Tyler Smith for good and three other players indefinitely.
But inside the locker room, the expectations remained as high as ever.
"Our goal is still the same," sophomore guard Scotty Hopson said. "We want to win a national championship. That's not going to change."
That goal may seem a bit out of reach for a team that will spend the rest of the season without its best player, but it's hard to argue with the way the Volunteers have responded to adversity thus far.
Tennessee (14-2, 2-0 SEC) owns a six-game winning streak that includes four consecutive victories since a Jan. 1 incident decimated the Vols' roster. Smith, junior guard Melvin Goins, sophomore guard Cameron Tatum and junior center Brian Williams were in a car that was pulled over for speeding. During the traffic stop, police found a handgun with an altered serial number, a bag of marijuana and an open container of alcohol.
All four players were arrested on misdemeanor drug and gun charges. Smith eventually was dismissed from the team and the other three players suspended, though Goins and Tatum will be reinstated for Tuesday's game at Alabama.
The incident left Tennessee with just six scholarship players, but the Vols haven't lost since. In its past four games, Tennessee trounced Charlotte, stunned top-ranked Kansas, whipped Auburn and rallied from a 12-point, second-half deficit to beat Ole Miss in overtime.
"A lot of teams go through a lot of situations and they take it a different way, but this team just took it and made something of it," senior center Wayne Chism said. "We've made a lot of it. We're staying together as a team."
Chism, a four-year starter, arguably is playing the best basketball of his career. He scored 18 points and dished out a career-high six assists against Charlotte. He battled foul trouble for much of the Kansas game, but he followed that up by recording 12 points and 12 rebounds against Auburn and delivering a 26-point, 12-rebound performance that carried the Vols to the victory over Ole Miss.
"Wayne Chism put this team on his back," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said after the victory over the Rebels.
Tennessee also has turned its defense up a notch. A lack of depth could have crippled Tennessee's defense because the Vols thrive on a full-court pressure attack that requires frequent substitution. Tennessee instead has done an even better job of stopping teams since the arrests.
The Vols have allowed an average of 63.3 points in regulation time over their past four games. Ole Miss headed to Knoxville leading the SEC in assist-turnover ratio, but the Rebels had 21 turnovers and just eight assists against the Vols.
"This is still Tennessee basketball," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "They just cannot extend it for 94 feet based upon the lack of numbers. They are still very, very scrappy. Their hands are everywhere, and they live off deflections."
Tennessee has added a new wrinkle to its defensive approach. The Vols usually rely almost exclusively on man-to-man defense, but they made effective use of a zone in critical situations against Ole Miss.
"We just have to play defense," senior guard J.P. Prince said. "That's going to win us games right now. We don't have the firepower necessary to score 90 points a game."
The Vols also have benefited from the emergence of some unlikely contributors. Guard Skylar McBee turned down scholarship offers from Marshall, Santa Clara and Winthrop in order to walk-on at Tennessee. He is averaging 19.5 minutes a game since the arrests and hit an off-balance 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down to clinch Tennessee's 76-68 stunner over Kansas.
Junior guard Josh Bone spent two seasons at Southern Illinois before transferring to Tennessee as a walk-on during the holiday break of the 2008-09 school year. Bone didn't become eligible until the second semester because of the mid-year transfer. He played a total of six minutes in his first four games after becoming eligible, but the suspensions caused him to move into the rotation and he has averaged 17.5 minutes in the past four games. He scored nine points, delivered two critical overtime steals and provided suffocating defense on Ole Miss star guard Chris Warren to spark the Vols' victory over the Rebels.
"I was just told to always stay ready and keep working hard," Bone said. "When you do that, everything pays off. I knew my opportunity would come. I'm just trying to take advantage of it."
The emergence of McBee and Bone hasn't surprised their teammates. Pearl showed his faith in them by putting both on the floor at the start of the overtime period against Ole Miss. A third walk-on with a familiar name - junior forward Steven Pearl, the coach's son - also has seen his playing time increase over the past week.
"We don't treat them like walk-ons," Prince said. "That's a word we hardly ever use. They battle in practice. They do everything just like the scholarship [players]. That's just something the fans notice, that they're walk-ons. … I don't consider Skylar a walk-on because he goes against Scotty Hopson every day. Bone goes against [starting point guard] Bobby Maze. Those are guys they've been training against. They see everything I see."
Tennessee's past three wins have come against teams that beat the Volunteers during the 2008-09 regular season. The Vols will be seeking revenge again Tuesday at Alabama.
W, 71-69 (OT)
NOTE: * -- Tennessee lost to Auburn and Alabama during the 2008-09 regular season before beating both teams in the SEC tournament.
The walk-ons have played well enough to give Pearl an interesting dilemma as Goins and Tatum return to action: How does he use Bone and McBee while also working Goins and Tatum back into the rotation?
Then again, perhaps Goins and Tatum are returning just in time. The Vols need the reinforcements as they begin a two-game road trip that sends them to Alabama on Tuesday and Georgia on Saturday. Tennessee's four wins since the suspensions have come at home.
"All we've really done is hold serve," Pearl said.
The bigger challenge comes now. Conventional wisdom suggests that when a team loses a star player for an extended period of time, it often plays better in the early going because everyone else wants to pick up the slack. But after a few games, reality sets in and the team suffers.
Tennessee just finished playing three home games in a seven-day span while using only six scholarship players. Bone earned 26 minutes of playing time Saturday in part because Maze was exhausted after using so much energy in the Kansas and Auburn games.
Ever since they started playing with a short-handed roster, whenever they got tired, the Vols could count on their home crowd to offer a shot of adrenaline. How will they respond without that fan support? The answer could determine whether Tennessee can seriously challenge Kentucky for the SEC title.
"We've got to find a way now to win without our crowd, without emotion, without that," Pearl said. "We're not intimidating anybody. We're not scaring anybody."