Battle on the boards

Tennessee shoots the basketball fairly well (45.2 percent). Pittsburgh (48.5) shoots it better.

Tennessee handles the basketball fairly well (16.0 turnovers per game). Pittsburgh (12.2) handles it better.

Tennessee distributes the basketball fairly well (14.3 assists per game). Pittsburgh (20.0) distributes it better.

Tennessee rebounds the basketball fairly well (plus-9.3 margin per game). Pittsburgh rebounds it ... well, as if the ball were made of solid gold.

The third-ranked Panthers boast a whopping plus-16.7 rebound margin after dominating Delaware State 41-18 on the boards in a 70-42 blowout Wednesday night. That makes the backboard battle a huge key when they host the 11th-ranked Vols in Saturday's Big East/SEC Challenge. Tennessee's players can bang on the boards but can they hang on the boards with a team as rugged as Pitt?

"They're known for the way they rebound the basketball," Vol head man Bruce Pearl said. "When the ball gets shot on their offensive end they get half of the misses, which is a pretty good statistic."

He isn't exaggerating. Pitt is averaging 17.4 offensive rebounds per game and its opponents are averaging 18.5 defensive rebounds per game.

Pittsburgh's best rebounder is 6-11, 250-pound senior center Gary McGhee at 6.8 per game. Talib Zanna, a 6-9, 225-pound freshman, follows closely at 6.2 per game. Brad Wannamaker, a 6-4, 210-pound senior guard, averages 5.4 rebounds per game and 6-6, 215-pound senior forward Gilbert Brown checks in at 4.9. Two of the Panthers' best board men come off the bench. Sophomore Dante Taylor (6-9, 240) averages 5.6 rebounds per game and junior Nasir Robinson 5.3.

Tennessee has superior length with a roster that features 6-10 Brian Williams, 6-9 John Fields, 6-9 Kenny Hall, 6-9 Renaldo Woolridge and 6-8 Tobias Harris. The Vols generally use their length effectively on the boards, although they allowed a significantly shorter Missouri State team to outrebound them 38-32 in Game 3 and allowed Virginia Commonwealth to grab 45 rebounds in Game 4.

"Even though we've got good rebounding numbers, I thought VCU really hurt us the first half on the boards," Pearl said. "We can't fuel Pittsburgh's second- and third-shot offense by not checking out physically, by not having all of the guards rebound down."

Tennessee is exceptionally long at guard, thanks to 6-7 Scotty Hopson and 6-6 Cameron Tatum. Both rebound reasonably well for backcourt players, Hopson averaging 3.8 per game and Tatum 3.7. They'll need to crash the boards this Saturday.

"Pittsburgh does a great job with their ball-screen offense," Pearl said. "In order to defend it, you have to commit more than one defender to the ball. That allows the guy that set the ball screen to roll down to the basket free. There's nobody there to check him out. Therefore, the guards have got to pinch. That's why Scotty Hopson got 11 rebounds against VCU. He had to come down and rebound out of the guard spot. Ball-screen offense is a lot about rebounding."

Tennessee's defense is limiting opponents to a mere 36.1 field-goal percentage. If Pitt gets two shots at the basket per possession, however, the Panthers will be scoring almost every time they get the ball. That has Pearl concerned.

"The defense has been good so far," he conceded, "but we haven't seen a lot (in terms of offensive variety). We've only played six games. We'll see other offenses and teams that will challenge us in different ways."

The Vols will see one of them Saturday afternoon, in fact.

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