Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl got some pub the past couple of days for going shirtless to a Tennessee women's basketball game Monday night. Had his body painted orange. Sat in the student section. Cheered for the Lady Vols.
Tonight the shirts may be on but the gloves will be off as Ole Miss hosts Tennessee in a battle of teams who need a win badly.
The Volunteers, 14-5 overall and 2-2 in Southeastern Conference play, come to Oxford having snapped a three-game losing streak with a 64-61 win over South Carolina in Knoxville Saturday. They had lost all three on the road – at Vanderbilt, at Ohio State, and at Auburn – before the win over the Gamecocks.
The Rebels have just one SEC win so far, a 74-72 victory over Arkansas at home. But the last two games have been single-digit road losses to LSU and Florida. Junior guard Brian Smith said the Rebels have some confidence now that they can compete with every team they face.
"We feel like we can play with any team in the country," Smith said after Ole Miss' 62-55 loss to the Tigers and 79-70 setback to the Gators, the No. 1-ranked team in the country. "We feel we are playing better, and we are glad to finally be playing at home again."
The Rebels' lone SEC win against the Razorbacks was in Oxford, and the only other SEC game at home was a 68-58 defeat at the hands of Smith's father's team, the Kentucky Wildcats, coached by Tubby Smith.
Ole Miss first-year head coach Andy Kennedy, his team now 12-7 and 1-4, says playing at home should help his team.
"I guess we'll see," he said. "We need to play better wherever we play. But we're looking forward to playing at home before our own fans for a change."
Kennedy said, as did Brian Smith, that the Rebels played hard and at times played well but couldn't finish. That trend needs to change.
"We're coming off two very challenging road contests at LSU and Florida," he said. "Our team competed to give us a chance. But when you're playing teams like that on the road, you have to be on top of your game in order to get a win. Now we host Tennessee, and it's always nice to return to the friendly confines, so hopefully we'll be able to get a win."
Pearl said he's been impressed with the strides the Rebels and Kennedy have made this season.
"Ole Miss has really made a lot of progress," Pearl said. "Andy's done a wonderful job with that team. It's a veteran team, so these guys know how to play together. They're also a physical team. They don't turn the ball over much, which is going to make it difficult to press. They've also got a tremendous size advantage over us."
Tonight's action will feature two teams who love to play pressure basketball. Kennedy said it should be an interesting game to play, to coach, and to watch.
"They play the way we're trying to play," he said. "It should be an intense game for all concerned."
The Vols will likely be without their best player, 6-foot-2 junior guard Chris Lofton, the SEC's leading scorer at 21.5 points per game. He turned an ankle in UT's win over USC four days ago.
Tennessee leads 24-20 in Oxford games, but the Rebels have won three of the last five here. Following tonight's action, Ole Miss plays at Vanderbilt Saturday at 12 noon in a game televised by the LF Sports Network.
The Rebels-Volunteers game tonight is not being televised. Tickets remain available for UM-UT at the coliseum ticket office.
Rebels host Vols in important matchup
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