If they can’t do it the Tigers will drop below .500 and go into further jeopardy of finishing with a losing record, something Pearl has never had in his 19 seasons as a college coach.
A loss would also mean that a Pearl led squad would be on its longest losing streak ever. While coaching the Vols his teams lost three straight on three occasions. Pearl’s longest losing streak at Milwaukee was just two games.
Tipoff is set for 11 a.m. CST at Thompson-Boling Arena and the game will be televised on ESPN2. The Vols are 12-7 overall and 4-3 in the SEC. Auburn is 10-10 overall and 2-5 in the league.
“From the minute we get off the plane ESPN is going to be there,” Pearl said. “They are going to make a deal about my return to Knoxville. The game is going to be on ESPN2, a special start time...There is just going to be a lot more attention.”
Pearl said he has told players that he could be emotional before the game because that is how he is wired, but added, “From the minute we get in that huddle to start playing there won’t be any different emotion as it comes to coaching, as it relates to the game.
“My preparation prior to the game has been same--it has been consistent,” the first-year Auburn coach added. “I am sure in the moments leading up to tip it will be difficult.”
Pearl said the challenge on the court will be finding a way to score against what the coach calls a “unique” zone defense, a 1-1-3 alignment. He also said the Vols do a good job of stealing the basketball and scoring after forcing turnovers.
“It is as high and as an extended a 1-1-3 as you will see,” Pearl pointed out. “The two guards they will put up front, Richardson at 6-6 and long, and Punter will be up there sometimes, too, it makes it really hard to get the ball inside. When you kick it to the wings where we have K.T. (K.T. Harrell) and Antoine (Antoine Mason) they will really jump out and make sure they are there on the catch.
“The baseline is available, but if you put it there you better make a play because they will trap it down and then they will turn you over if you don’t get it there in an advantage/disadvantage situation.”
Senior K.T. Harrell leads the Tigers in scoring with an average of 17.1 points per game.
The coach said it will be important for his players to execute their game plan and added it will be important to hit three-point shots vs. the zone, but added, “We just can’t settle for that. We are going to have to drive the ball to the basket...We are going to have to get in the gaps and then see if we can make plays in the lane.”
Armani Moore, a 6-5 junior forward, is averaging 9.7 points and 6.6 rebounds. Derek Reese, a 6-8 junior forward, has averages of 5.3 points and 5.2 rebounds for Coach Donnie Tyndall, who is in his first season in charge of the Volunteers.
Tigers vs. Vols: The Vols have won their last seven matchups vs. the Tigers and have an all-time record of 74-37 against Auburn. In games played in Knoxville the Vols have a 45-7 advantage. In the previous matchup the Vols dominated taking an 82-54 victory last March.
Homecourt Advantage: Tennessee has an 8-2 record this season at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Comparing Pearl's First Seasons: The Auburn coach had these comments on his first season as head coach at Tennessee compared to his first at Auburn:
“I can’t. We’re judged based on winning and losing. When I was able to go to Tennessee I inherited a talented roster that had underachieved. Here I inherited a thin roster that didn’t underachieve, they were well coached but were just out-manned, and we graduated three seniors that played a lot of basketball ,including one of the best players in the league in Chris Denson. It was a different time.
"I was able to do things at Tennessee right away because the roster was prepared. It’s going to be different. Some of the shine is going to wear off the apple. Some of the shine that I am going to come in here and turn this program right around, which some people maybe thought was possible, that’s gone. But in some ways we have made enough progress with the program because there is more to it than just winning and losing, it’s the academics, it’s the culture of discipline, it’s the effort and energy.
"We’ve got to win enough games to continue to be able to make progress, be competitive, recruit positively. The success, we are just going to have to wait longer for the success.”
Slow Starts: The Tigers have managed to score 30 or more points in the first half just twice in SEC games and won both of those contests. They lost the other five while averaging just 22.2 points prior to halftime.
Up Next: The Tigers will travel to LSU on Thursday for a 6 p.m. tipoff.