BASKETBALL: Pearl Keeping Memphis Game in

FAYETTEVILLE —Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl won't deny that his team's rapidly approaching date with rival Memphis has gripped the state for much of the past three weeks.

He knows it has the college basketball world abuzz, too. He even admits that it's a great chance for the Volunteers to make a big statement with the NCAA Tournament looming.

But despite all the attention and fanfare, Pearl said he's keeping things in perspective about Saturday's mega-matchup between No. 1 Memphis and No. 2 Tennessee. To him, the Volunteers have much more at stake next Tuesday, when they play another in-state rival — Vanderbilt.

"Regardless of what happens Saturday, we've got to be ready to go to Vanderbilt and try to win a (Southeastern Conference) championship," Pearl said Thursday. "We're trying to do something we have not done at Tennessee in 41 years and that's win an outright SEC regular season championship."

Tennessee will put those aspirations aside — but not too far — when they play Memphis in Saturday's eagerly anticipated game in the FedEx Forum. The matchup was originally scheduled for nonconference season, but ESPN asked both schools if it could push back the game until this month. The stipulation was the network would bring its College GameDay crew to broadcast live at the Forum.

The success of both teams has created a Super Bowl-like atmosphere and Pearl said the game will serve as an important measuring stick for the Vols with the regular season wrapping up in less than two weeks. But Pearl also downplayed the significance because of the SEC title chase, which Tennessee is closing in on.

The Vols hold a 2 1/2-game lead over Kentucky and Mississippi State with five remaining. Vanderbilt and Arkansas are 3 1/2 back. So he felt more pressure preparing Tennessee for its 89-70 home win against Auburn — one of the worst teams in the SEC — on Wednesday night than he will for Memphis.

"If this was a game that was in the Elite Eight to go to the Final Four ... now that would've been pressure packed," Pearl said. "What's on the line here Saturday is more to do with a good in-state rivalry and some bragging rights. The winner is going to feel real good, but that pales in comparison to the pressure of trying to do something that's not been done in 41 years."

Style change

Want to know the reason Ole Miss snapped a bitter, four-game losing skid by beating in-state rival Mississippi State on Wednesday night? It could be a kinder, gentler coach Andy Kennedy.

The second-year coach, who is known for his toughness, said he has tried to change the way in which he deals with his young team. Kennedy said that includes more encouragement and pats on the back, hoping it will help restore some of the confidence shaken by the mounting losses. It seemed to work against MSU.

"When we were winning early and got off to 15-1, 15-2 (start), I felt like we still had so much more to give," Kennedy said. "Then we hit a skid and some doubt crept in, most especially to our backcourt, which we're so terribly inexperienced. ... We've tried to show them over the last week or so we have the makings of a good team if we do things the right way. We took a step back in the right direction (Wednesday)."

Late-game woes

Georgia hasn't struggled to stay in games this season, but it's having problems closing them.

The Bulldogs 61-55 loss at Kentucky on Tuesday was highlighted by more struggles down the stretch. Georgia fell behind 20-4 and clawed back into the game, but made only one field goal in the final six minutes. It was the team's fifth loss by eight points or less in conference games.

Associate head coach Pete Hermann said the late-game frustrations were an all-too-familiar site.

"The same type of situation happened against Kentucky before, happened against Vanderbilt, against South Carolina," Hermann said. "When we get to that stage we would like for our players to make the other team guard. The more you make them guard the better the chance of getting fouled or getting the ball closer to the basket or getting the ball to a good spot. But we get anxious because of the situations that have occurred previously."

Georgia will try again this weekend when it plays at Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Let's Celebrate

South Carolina may be struggling in its final season under coach Dave Odom, but the Gamecocks will have a little something to celebrate this weekend. The school will be welcoming dozens of former basketball players back to campus as part of its 100 years of South Carolina basketball celebration.

The centerpiece of the weekend events will be, of course, Saturday's game against Mississippi State. Odom said he doesn't believe the massive homecoming will be a distraction, but wants his team to play well for the alumni.

"It's going to be a big weekend," Odom said. "One of the jobs we have to do is make sure our players stay focused on the game because the most important thing on the weekend is the game."

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