Is UT for real?

Are the Tennessee Basketball Vols contenders or pretenders in the SEC East race? Fans will find out over the next eight days as UT plays three "must-win" home games, starting today against South Carolina.

Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena. A crowd of 20,000-plus is expected. Fox Sports Net will provide television coverage. Tennessee won the earlier meeting at Columbia 76-69.

Whereas today's game represents the start of a three-game homestand for the Vols (13-3 overall, 4-1 SEC), it represents the start of a three-game road trip for the Gamecocks (11-8, 2-4).

Carolina is led by Tarence Kinsey, who averages 15.4 points per game. Tre' Kelley chips in 11.7 points per game and leads the team with 3.7 assists per game. Renaldo Balkman adds 10.4 points per game while leading the team in rebounds (6.3) and steals (1.6).

The 19th-ranked Vols will be playing their first home game as a ranked team today. Tennessee jumped to No. 23 after beating Texas on Dec. 17 but lost four days later to Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City and dropped from the rankings. The Vols earned a No. 19 rating after beating Florida one week ago but played their next game on the road, Wednesday night at Mississippi State.

The Big Orange is led by senior point guard C.J. Watson (16.1 points per game), who recently moved into second place on the school's all-time lists for assists (528) and steals (178). He stands 25th on the all-time scoring list with 1,224 points.

Watson is coming off one of his best games as a Vol, hitting 8 of 10 from the floor en route to a team-high 19 points in Wednesday night's 88-65 win at Mississippi State. He also registered five assists and four steals that evening.

Following today's game with Carolina, UT hosts Vanderbilt (Wednesday at 7:30) and Ole Miss (next Saturday at 3).

If Watson can help his team "hold serve" in these next three home games, boosting UT's record to 16-3 and 7-1, the Vols could clearly establish themselves as serious challengers for the SEC East title.

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