UT takes 'step up in class'

He tends to overstate, but Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was understating when he said his Vols will be taking "a step up in class" in today's finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Villanova is more of a "leap up in class" for a No. 24 Vol squad that has not faced a ranked opponent all year. The Wildcats are No. 6 in this week's Associated Press poll. They're 5-0 with an average victory margin of 25.2 points. They're coming off a game with UCLA which saw them bolt to a 44-29 halftime lead, then coast to an 82-70 victory. They're riding a 17-game November winning streak - the last loss coming in 2007. They're guided by one of the NCAA's most respected coaches, Jay Wright.

Tennessee, conversely, has been hot and cold. The Vols are shooting just 25.4 percent from 3-point range, and they're averaging more turnovers (16.5) than assists (13.5) per game. By comparison, Villanova is shooting 30.9 percent from 3 and averaging nearly twice as many assists (17.4) as turnovers (9.2).

Here's another ill omen for the Big Orange. Villanova's Corey Fisher is the kind of quick, penetrating guard that typically gives Tennessee fits. UCLA couldn't contain the 6-1, 185-pounder Wednesday night, sending him to the foul line 15 times. He connected 14 times en route to a game-high 26 points. He's averaging 18.4 points per game.

Backcourt mate Maalik Wayns chipped in 19 points vs. the Bruins. He's a 6-2, 185-pounder who averages 14.6 points and 6.2 assists per game.

The other backcourt guy in Villanova's three-guard lineup is 6-5, 195-pound Corey Stokes. He scored 16 vs. UCLA and is averaging 13.2 points per game on the season.

The Wildcats' frontcourt should be the best Tennessee has faced thus far, as well. Mouphtaou Yarou, a 6-10, 250-pounder, dominated inside vs. UCLA, grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking three shots. He averages 10.0 points and 9.2 rebounds for the season.

Yarou gets plenty of inside help from Antonio Pena, a 6-8, 235-pounder who averages 8.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.

Tennessee's best chance to win is to play airtight defense. That strategy worked in the Vols' 77-72 defeat of Virginia Commonwealth in Wednesday's NIT semis, as they limited the Rams to 30.9-percent shooting. For the season Tennessee opponents are averaging just 66.5 points per game and shooting a mere 35.6 percent.

Today's game will be televised by ESPN. UCLA and Virginia Commonwealth meet in the NIT consolation game at 2:30.

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