Vols host Kentucky

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The Tennessee Vols get up for home games and get up for quality foes ... meaning they should be sky-high for today's noon tipoff against Kentucky.

That's because the game is at Thompson-Boling Arena against a Wildcat squad that boasts a 16-1 overall record, a 2-0 SEC mark and a No. 2 national ranking. That should have the Big Orange (8-8 overall, 1-1 SEC) primed for a peak performance.

One Vol, in particular, projects to be pumped this afternoon. That would be junior forward Jeronne Maymon, who exhibits a real knack for giving his best performances against the best opponents. In five games against nationally ranked teams this winter he has averaged 16.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game with double-doubles against No. 6 Duke (14 points, 12 rebounds) and No. 8 Memphis (32 points, 20 rebounds) during the Maui Invitational. He scored 12 points each against No. 17 Pittsburgh and No. 13 Florida, then produced 13 points Thursday night at No. 20 Mississippi State despite playing just 18 minutes due to foul trouble.

In an attempt to keep his players on an even keel, Vol head man Cuonzo Martin preaches the importance of ignoring the name on the front of the opponent's jersey. Try as he might, Maymon simply hasn't been able to accomplish this.

"I try to play consistent every game, no matter who we're playing," he said recently. "But, when the talent level raises, my energy is always up. I try to stay consistent. It's very hard to do but I'm working on it."

Maymon isn't the only Vol who seems to elevate his game against elite opponents. Although Tennessee is 1-4 against ranked teams this season, the Vols played well in each of the four losses. They lost 77-67 to No. 6 Duke on Nov. 21, fell 99-97 in two overtimes against No. 8 Memphis on Nov. 22, lost 61-56 to No. 17 Pitt on Dec. 3 and bowed 62-58 at No. 20 Mississippi State earlier this week.

In addition to getting up for marquee games, the Vols have learned to get up for home games. Since playing horrendously in a 74-70 homefloor loss to a 1-9 Austin Peay team on Dec. 10, Tennessee is 5-0 at Thompson-Boling, most recently stunning No. 13 Florida 67-56.

Martin, who posted a 36-3 home record his last two seasons at Missouri State, clearly understands the value of holding serve on your home court. Apparently, he has successfully conveyed this message to his players in recent weeks.

"I can talk about it all day long — we can talk about it as a staff all day long — but I think you have to go through it, have a sense of pride about who you're playing for," he said this week.

Many of the fans who attend Vol home games are Tennesseans whose contributions helped pay for UT scholarships and helped build Thompson-Boling Arena. Giving a quality effort each time they take the floor at home is the least the Vols can do to repay these supporters.

"Obviously, you represent your family, but you play for the University of Tennessee," Martin said. "That's the most important thing they have to understand. That is who they play for ... who they represent. If you do that, you don't worry about all of the other things."

Several Vols thought the home crowd played a key role in Tennessee's upset of Florida.

"It was definitely a positive impact," freshman Josh Richardson said. "It was pretty crazy to see all of those people in there just to see us play. I think it gave me a lot more confidence and a lot more excitement. It made us want to play a lot harder for them and for each other."

Asked if he ever anticipated that college ball would provide an opportunity to play before such large and noisy crowds, Richardson replied: "I had no idea what it would be like but I liked it. I thought it was fun."

So, what happened between the putrid performance versus Austin Peay and the powerful performance against Florida to make the Vols more of a force on their home floor?

"We just cleared up a lot more stuff as a team, and I think our chemistry got a lot better," Richardson said. "We're getting more used to playing with each other. I think a lot of that was for the best ... just getting everything out there."

Obviously, playing at home provides several advantages. The players don't grow weary traveling to the game site. They stick to a familiar game-day routine. They get to perform in familiar surroundings. Still, one advantage stands head and shoulders above the rest.

"The crowd," Richardson said. "Everybody's rooting for you here, and everybody's rooting against you there."

NOTES: If you're into omens, this could be a special day for the Vols. On this day 62 years ago (Jan. 14, 1950) an unranked Tennessee team shocked a No. 2 ranked Kentucky squad 66-53 in Knoxville.... Kentucky has been ranked No. 2 on 19 occasions when facing Tennessee, going 13-6 in those meetings but just 4-5 in Knoxville..... The Big Blue is the only program in college hoops to feature six double-figure scorers. The leading scorer, Doron Lamb at 14.6 points per game, doesn't start.... The projected UK starters are 6-10 freshman Anthony Davis (12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds per game), 6-9 sophomore Terrence Jones (11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds), 6-7 freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (13.2 points, 7.5 rebounds), 6-8 senior Darius Miller (10.1 points) and 6-2 freshman Marquis Teague (10.9 points, 4.4 assists per game).... Kentucky has won the last three meetings with the Vols, including a 64-58 verdict last March in Knoxville.... Today's game will be televised nationally by ESPN.


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