Key question

The Tennessee Vols tend to play to the level of their competition, which could make for an ugly game Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. The competition, LSU, has dropped its last two games by a combined 65 points.

Trent Johnson's Tigers were annihilated 82-44 at Kentucky on Jan. 15. Then, despite a week off to regroup, they suffered a 78-51 home-floor beat-down at the hands of Ole Miss last Saturday.

Now 10-9 overall and 2-2 in SEC play, LSU ranks dead last among the 12 conference teams in scoring (53.2 points per game), scoring margin (minus 13.8), field-goal percentage (34.9) and 3-point percentage (20.5). The Tigers are 11th in free-throw percentage (61.5), turnover margin (minus-3.5) and assist/turnover ratio (0.7 to 1). They rank 10th in 3-point defense (37.0 percent).

Tennessee, 12-7 overall and 2-2 SEC, appears capable of sinking to the Tigers' level, however. Remember, this is a Vol team that struggled mightily Dec. 29 on its home floor to win 68-62 against a UT Martin team that was blown out 100-40 by Ohio State just two nights earlier.

The close call vs. Martin is merely one example of the Vols' tendency to play to the level of competition. The Big Orange was exceptionally sharp in beating No. 7 Villanova 78-68, beating No. 3 Pitt 83-76, beating No. 21 Memphis 104-84 and beating a very good Georgia team 59-57 in Athens. Conversely, the Vols were painful to watch in losses to Oakland 89-82, Charlotte 49-48, College of Charleston 91-78 and Arkansas 68-65.

For what it's worth, Tennessee's effort and execution have been a little more consistent of late. After a horrendous first half in which they trailed visiting Vanderbilt by 17 points on Jan. 15, the Vols rallied to win thanks to a dominating second half. They put together two pretty good halves at Georgia on Jan. 18 and played well for 32 minutes at No. 8 UConn on Jan. 22 only to fade in the final eight minutes.

Head coach Bruce Pearl is encouraged by those recent performances.

"There could be a lot of SEC teams that could go to Hartford and look out of place (vs. UConn)," Pearl said. "I don't think we looked out of place until the last minute of the game. I felt like we had a chance to get one more basket and maybe a turnover and see if we could get a last possession out of it.

"And they were up for the (UConn) game. They really rose to the challenge against Georgia."

UConn and Georgia are quality teams, however, and Tennessee has had no trouble getting up for good teams. The Vols' inept performances tend to come against struggling teams ... like the LSU squad that will be visiting on Wednesday night.

"We recognize that there has been some inconsistency," Pearl said. "Focus on effort and energy.... That'll be our focus, being the one thing you can control."

Despite LSU's recent struggles, the Vol coach believes his team will bring sufficient levels of energy and intensity on Wednesday night.

"You get back in league play, you're one game out of the East lead in the lost column," he said. "We've got work to do, and I'm sure the kids are excited about it."

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