A lot has changed since Tennessee held the No. 5 spot in the Associated Press preseason poll. The Lady Vols dropped six games before the end of December, which sent them tumbling from the rankings.

Also in December, center Tamari Key was sidelined for the rest of the season due to blood clots in her lungs. In January, Marta Suarez left the team to return to Spain for personal issues.

But since the early losing spell, the Vols have managed to turn their season around. They’re 8-0 in conference play, with a nine-game winning streak. And coach Kellie Harper still thinks her squad can be the team many thought they would be in the preseason.

“This program needs to be in the Final Four and compete for national championships,” Harper told ESPN. “That’s where we need to be. … We’ve still got time to be that team.”

Tennessee is on the brink of breaking back into the AP Top 25, and the Vols have been playing their best basketball as of late. And with two highly-touted opponents coming up on the schedule, Tennessee has the chance to prove its preseason hype wasn’t all misplaced.

The Vols (16-6) take on No. 5 UConn (18-2) at 8 p.m. ET Thursday, a rivalry game that dates back to the Pat Summit era. Then, they head to Baton Rouge on Monday to play No. 4 LSU (20-0), one of the country’s two remaining undefeated teams.

A win against either of those squads would go a long way for Tennessee’s March Madness résumé — and perhaps more importantly, its confidence. 

The Vols started the season with a stacked slate of opponents. Their six losses came to teams that were either ranked then (and still are), or unranked teams that have since worked their way into the AP Top 25.  Since then, though they haven’t lost, the Vols haven’t played a ranked opponent.

UConn and South Carolina will provide a good barometer for where Tennessee stands now.