"I hope we play well at Nashville against a Murray State team that will test us in all respects."
The Racers, preseason picks to win the Ohio Valley Conference, return every starter from last year's squad that went 17-11. They opened the 2005-06 season with a 79-75 overtime loss at Cincinnati, then bounced back to hammer Campbellsville 76-51. Murray is coached by Mick Cronin, who spent two years as Rick Pitino's associate head coach at Louisville.
Murray is a virtual mirror image of Tennessee in terms of personnel. The Vols start a versatile but undersized power forward in 6-4 Dane Bradshaw, who averages 9.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. Murray counters with 6-5 Shawn Witherspoon, who averages 10.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Tennessee starts 6-5 Stanley Asumnu (11.7 ppg) at the other forward, while Murray starts 6-6 Justin Orr (13.5 ppg).
Tennessee starts 6-10 Major Wingate (13.7 ppg, 3.3 rebounds) at center, while Murray counters with 6-10 Pearson Griffith (2.5 ppg, 2.5 rebounds). Tennessee starts 6-2 Chris Lofton (17.7 ppg) at shooting guard, while Murray starts 6-2 Trey Pearson (19.5 ppg). Tennessee starts 6-2 C.J. Watson (17.0 ppg, 5.3 assists per game, while Murray starts 6-2 Keith Jenifer (8.0 ppg, 4.5 assists).
Pearson, originally from South Fulton, Tenn., is a transfer from Ole Miss who was the preseason pick for OVC Player of the Year.
"Murray State is a good team," Pearl said. "If we play well, we can beat Murray State. If we don't play well, we will lose this game."
The Vols beat one of the OVC's better teams last Friday, trouncing Eastern Kentucky 92-58. But that game was played at Tennessee's home court and at Tennessee's tempo.
"I thought in the second half we rebounded and played defense well," Pearl said. "I also thought that in the second half our conditioning paid off for us. Eastern Kentucky was a good team, and I was happy we were able to come out on top."