He's baaaaaaack

It's ridiculously appropriate that Tennessee is coming off a 49-48 loss when it hosts former coach Kevin O'Neill tonight. That's the kind of score Vol games routinely produced when O'Neill was running the show from 1994-97.

Moreover, current UT coach Bruce Pearl says O'Neill's Southern Cal Trojans approach defense much as Charlotte did in its low-scoring defeat of the Vols last Friday evening.

"Defensively, they would compare to Charlotte in that they've got pretty good size with (6-6, 220-pound Marcus) Simmons, (6-10, 260-pound Nikola) Vucevic and (6-9, 235-pound Alex) Stepheson," Pearl said. "But they would do it with a sagging man-to-man defense, whereas Charlotte did it with a sagging zone defense."

Tennessee brings a 7-2 record into tonight's 7 o'clock tipoff but has dropped its last two outings and tumbled from No. 7 to No. 19 in the newest Associated Press national rankings. Southern Cal is 6-5 but coming off an impressive showing in a 70-68 loss at third-ranked Kansas.

"USC's a good team," Pearl said. "They beat a good Texas team and gave Kansas all they wanted."

The Trojans' inside game is a big concern for Tennessee. Stepheson hit 8 of 11 from the field en route to 19 points and 15 rebounds in USC's 77-55 drubbing of the Vols last year. Vucevic made 5 of 7 shots and finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks.

This season Vucevic is averaging 16.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Stepheson checks in at 9.5 and 8.3, respectively.

"Vucevic is terrific," Pearl said. "He's 6-10 and 260 now but he doesn't look like there's an ounce of fat on him. He a much improved player from a year ago, and he had a really great game against us a year ago.

"And Stepheson was a McDonald's All-American who went to North Carolina and transferred back to Southern Cal, where he grew up."

With Vucevic and Stepheson underneath, Trojan guards rarely crash the backboards. Instead, they concentrate on stopping the opponent's fast-break opportunities.

"Transition is the best way we score, and always has been," Pearl said. "It's hard to get transition baskets against them because they don't send very many guys to the offensive boards and they get back very well."

Southern Cal's backcourt consists of 6-0 Jio Fontan and 5-7 Maurice Jones, a freshman from Saginaw, Mich. Jones averages 11.3 points and 4.2 assists per game.

"Maurice Jones is about as quick a little guard as we'll see all year long," Pearl said. "Melvin (Goins) and Trae (Golden) will have a hard time keeping him in front.... He really has solved their problem at the point. He's playing a lot of minutes and playing very, very well."

Fontan, a transfer from Fordham, is averaging 15.0 points per game and could have the kind of impact Charlotte transfer Mike Gerrity did in last year's Vol-Trojan game. Gerrity burned the Big Orange for 12 points and 10 assists that afternoon.

"It'll be that big of a difference, except it'll be at the wing instead of the point," Pearl said. "Last year going in Southern Cal had a real weakness at point guard that everybody game-planned. It cost them games until that (UT) game.

"That young man (Gerrity) did a really nice job in that game. He had a good year but Tennessee was one of his better games. Fontan gives them another really good backcourt player. He does a little bit of everything. He was the Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year (2008-09)."

Given O'Neill's penchant for producing low-scoring games, it's a good bet the outcome of tonight's showdown will be determined in the final minute. That does not bode well for the Vols, who gave up a decisive 13-0 run in the late stages of last Tuesday's 89-82 loss to Oakland and blew a 48-42 lead in the final 1:30 of Friday's loss at Charlotte.

"The ability to close out games, I think, would be an issue," Pearl conceded. "Particularly at the offensive end ... to come down and execute, get a basket or get a foul or make an offensive play to win a game in the halfcourt set. That (problem) would come from some of the newness."

Despite the two-game losing streak, Pearl says the focus should be on improving each game rather than winning each game.

"It's an opportunity for us to focus on the process, not the end result," he said. "Obviously, the last couple of end results have not been pleasing."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories