'In harm's way'

The Tennessee basketball team's focus is like the signal from a cheap cell phone: It tends to drift in and out.

When the focus is strong, the Vols can beat the likes of Villanova and Pittsburgh. When the focus is weak, the Vols can lose to the likes of Charlotte and College of Charleston.

Big Orange fans can only hope the focus is strong this afternoon. Otherwise, unranked Tennessee (12-6) could be embarrassed when it visits eighth-ranked Connecticut (15-2) at 2 in a game that will be nationally televised by CBS.

"UConn plays as hard as anybody in the country," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "They run the fast break as well as anybody in the country."

Whether the Vols will play hard enough to match the Huskies' energy and intensity remains to be seen. The Big Orange gave an encouraging effort last time out, in a 59-57 victory at Georgia on Tuesday night.

"The effort and energy were what we're looking for as it relates to consistency," Pearl noted.

When asked about the emotional peaks and valleys that have characterized this Tennessee team, the coach replied that the Vols must "focus on what you can control. Focus on your effort and your energy, and the rest takes care of itself."

In addition to facing one of the country's best teams, Tennessee will be facing one of the country's top coaches (Jim Calhoun) and premier players (Kemba Walker).

Pearl noted that facing Calhoun is "like playing a Rick Pitino team. They've forgotten more than most guys have known. They've seen it all. It doesn't take a guy like Jim Calhoun long to watch us on tape and know what we're trying to do and know how to take it away. He's a Hall of Fame coach."

Then there is Walker, who averages 25.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Facing a player of his ilk should motivate the Vols.

"It's another opportunity game from a standpoint that UConn is probably one of the top four teams in the country," Pearl said. "We're playing against arguably the best player in the country in Kemba Walker. He's second in the country in scoring, and his season has been very well documented."

Scheduling non-conference opponents with top-10 rankings is not the easiest way to secure an NCAA Tournament bid, but it's the way Tennessee's staff has chosen.

"If you don't put these games on the schedule, you don't give your kids a chance to be on CBS in those situations," Pearl said. "You put them in harm's way and see how we respond, see whether or not we can take advantage of the opportunity."

Typically, his teams respond well when facing an elite opponent. The current top 10 features five teams Tennessee has played in the past 12 months - Ohio State, Kansas, San Diego State, Pitt and Villanova. The Vols won each time.

"We've played five of them, and in the last five encounters against the (current) top 10 we're 5-0," Pearl noted. "That's a pretty good position to be in at a time when we've got some good, we've got some bad and we've got some ugly."

GAME NOTES: In addition to Walker, UConn's projected starting lineup consists of 6-5 freshman Jeremy Lamb (7.6 points per game), 6-8 freshman Roscoe Smith (7.2 points per game), 6-9 freshman Tyler Olander (2.0 points per game) and 6-9, 240-pound senior Alex Onakhi (11.1 points, 9.4 rebounds per game).... Another Huskies freshman, guard Michael Bradley, was a McDonald's All-American last year as a senior at Tyner Academy in Chattanooga.... Tennessee ranks No. 1 in strength of schedule, according to Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com.... The Vols are 2-0 against Big East powers this season, having beaten Villanova 78-68 on Nov. 26 and Pitt 83-76 on Dec. 11.


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