Road tested

Tennessee's Bruce Pearl opened his Monday news conference by joking that SEC commissioner Mike Slive reduced his suspension from 10 games to eight once he recognized the punitive value of making Pearl coach at Kentucky and at Florida in his first two games back.

Certainly, the fact Tennessee must play at Lexington Tuesday and at Gainesville Saturday appears to be a huge negative. Given how the Vols play on the road, however, it might be a positive.

Since dropping their league opener 68-65 at Arkansas, the Vols have won three consecutive SEC road games - nipping Georgia 59-57 in Athens, trouncing Ole Miss 74-57 in Oxford and thumping Auburn 69-56 at Auburn.

By comparison, the Vols have lost two of their four SEC home games - bowing 81-75 to Florida and 65-60 to Alabama.

Although the road foes clearly have been weaker than the home foes, Tennessee has shown exceptional poise and energy in opposing arenas. That gives the Vols considerable confidence as they prepare for Tuesday's trip to Lexington and Saturday's trip to Gainesville.

"I think it helps a lot, as far as knowing we can play with anybody on the road," junior wing Cameron Tatum said. "We know we can handle some of the road woes - the crowd and being poised and stuff like that. If we go in there with a good mindset I think we'll be fine."

Sophomore guard Skylar McBee thinks so, too.

"Anytime you get a road victory and build that confidence," he said, "it's going to help a lot."

Even freshman Tobias Harris recognizes that Tennessee has developed a bit of a swagger when it goes on the road.

"It gives us a lot of confidence because we know we're a capable team, capable of winning those games," he said. "We have a lot of confidence, and we'll be ready for those games."

Kentucky (16-6 overall, 4-4 SEC) and Florida (18-5, 7-2) are difficult to beat anywhere but they're especially formidable at Rupp Arena and the O'Connell Center, respectively. Tatum says those are, without question, the two toughest venues in the SEC, adding: "The loudness and the support they have there ... it's unbelievable."

Asked for his take on the toughest SEC venues, McBee confided that "They're all tough to me." Still, he says Rupp Arena has an atmosphere all its own.

"Kentucky is going to be a fun place to play," he said. "It's going to be high energy, and I look for us to come out with a lot of energy and a lot of passion and to play well. The Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry is special."

The Tennessee-Florida rivalry is pretty special, too. The Gators lead the SEC East at 7-2, meaning the 5-3 Vols could be all but eliminated from the division race if they lose Tuesday at Lexington and Saturday at Gainesville.

"Obviously, it's a big week," Tatum said. "We've just got to go in there and understand what's at stake, understand that this probably will be a defining week for us.

"We've got to play like our backs are against the wall, go in there ready to play hard and give it our all."

Based on their four previous SEC road games, it's a safe bet the Vols will do precisely that.

SCOTTY MAY RETURN: It appears that Scotty Hopson, who missed the past two games with a sprained ankle, will play Tuesday night at Kentucky.

Although he listed Hopson as "questionable," Pearl's subsequent comments suggest the Vols' leading scorer will play vs. the home-state Wildcats.

"Will Scotty, in reduced minutes and without being 100 percent, still be effective for us? Yes," Pearl said. "As long as he and the trainers feel like he can go, I anticipate that he'll try."

McRAE REINSTATED: Freshman Jordan McRae has been reinstated to the team and allowed to practice with the Vols this evening. Suspended Jan. 22 for a violation of "team conduct" rules, McRae will not make Tuesday's trip to Rupp Arena but will participate in all team activities once the Vols return from Lexington.

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