Look familiar?

Anyone who has watched the Tennessee Vols play basketball this season will see a lot of similarities in South Alabama, tonight's foe (7 p.m. tip-off) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

For instance:

Both teams are on the small side. UT's starting lineup measures 6-10, 6-5, 6-4, 6-2 and 6-2. USA's measures 6-9, 6-6, 6-4, 6-2 and 6-0.

Both teams are scrappy. The Vols force 21.7 turnovers per game, the Jaguars 18.4.

Both teams like to run on offense and press on defense. UT coach Bruce Pearl's style has been compared to Rick Pitino's. USA coach John Pelphrey developed his style while playing for Pitino at Kentucky.

Both teams posted signature wins over ranked teams from Texas on Dec. 17. South Alabama upset No. 25 Houston, while Tennessee was shocking No. 6 Texas the same day.

Both teams feature balanced scoring. The Vols have five players averaging in double figures. All five Jaguar starters average between 7.4 and 13.0 points per game.

Finally, both teams are off to great starts. Tennessee is 8-1, South Alabama 9-2.

"They are off to their best start in 23 years at South Alabama, which means they are playing well," Pearl said. "They had a marquee win against a top-25 team, Houston, at home. That was a good win. They are deep, using nine or 10 guys. They play a little bit like we do, and in some areas they do it better than we do."

South Alabama is hardly a household name in college hoops circles but Pearl cautions that tonight's game will be a real challenge for the Vols.

"South Alabama beat Houston, which beat Arizona and LSU," he noted. "This will be the best opponent in Thompson-Boling (thus far) this year."

Because Pelphrey played under Pitino and coached under Pitino protégé Billy Donovan at Florida, USA's system is very much like the one Pitino is currently using at Louisville. Thus, the Jaguars should be fun to watch.

"Offensively, they are creative, and they are athletic," Pearl said. "Defensively, they are multiple. They're a good team, with experience. They have a lot of guys back. This is John's fourth year. It's a year they think they can get it going."

South Alabama's top player is probably Mario Jointer, a 6-2 shooting guard. He averages a team-high 13.0 points, plus 5.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Richard Law, a 6-6 power forward, chips in 11.1 points and a team-high 5.1 rebounds per game.

Coming off an 81-59 pasting of Western Michigan, South Alabama should provide a stern test for Tennessee. That's why Pearl is hoping the home fans can provide the same kind of boost they did last Thursday against Lipscomb.

"I think the crowd affected the outcome for the first time," the Vol coach said. "We just weren't as sharp offensively, and the crowd really helped us survive this basketball game. We drew a lot of energy from another great crowd."

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