'Fearless' Vols host Middle

Halloween didn't scare Tennessee's youthful Basketball Vols. Exhibition foes LeMoyne-Owen and Tusculum didn't scare them, either. And that has head coach Bruce Pearl scared heading into tonight's regular-season opener with Middle Tennessee.

Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

LeMoyne-Owen, which fell 126-66, and Tusculum, which lost 100-57, failed to challenge the Big Orange severely enough to instill any fear of losing in the Vols. Pearl thinks that kind of fear provides a valuable learning experience.

"The exhibition teams we played weren't good enough to expose things we wanted exposed," the Vol coach said. "We could get behind, and our guys won't have the needed experience (to rally)."

The 2006 exhibition games were in stark contrast to the 2005 exhibition opener. Southern Indiana led the Vols much of the way before dropping an 86-78 decision.

"We had the benefit of Southern Indiana almost beating us a year ago," Pearl recalled. "That was great, but we didn't get that this year."

That's a fact. LeMoyne-Owen offered only token resistance. The Magicians trailed 44-16 at the 10-minute mark and 76-29 at halftime. Tusculum provided a little sterner test ... at least for 20 minutes. The Pioneers out-shot Tennessee 52.4 percent to 34.9 percent in the first half and trailed by a mere 36-27 score. They wilted in the face of UT's full-court press over the final 20 minutes, however, being outscored 64-30.

"We played four halves of basketball in the preseason, and only one of them was worth anything," Pearl grumbled. "That was the first half against Tusculum."

Pearl, who showed a knack for making Vol opponents sound like Final Four material last season, hasn't changed his approach this season. He insists Middle Tennessee will be "twice as tough ... maybe 2½ times as tough" as the exhibition foes.

"You know me: I have that Lou Holtz thing in me. I'll tell you how tough it's going to be," he said. "They have two guys 6-10 starting and two guys 6-9 behind them. I don't have anybody 6-9."

What Pearl does have is a very talented but very young team that features one senior (Dane Bradshaw), three juniors (Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Jordan Howell), two sophomores (Ryan Childress, Anthony Passley) and five heralded freshmen. Because of the team's overall inexperience, the starting lineup may be in a constant state of flux.

"I think this is a team on which we'll be juggling the starting lineup," Pearl said.

Tonight's lineup will consist of 6-8 freshman Duke Crews in the post, 6-4 Bradshaw at power forward, 6-2 juniors JaJuan Smith and Lofton on the wings, with 6-2 freshman Ramar Smith at the point.

Asked what he is looking for in the opener, Pearl quipped: "I'm looking for our first win. That's what I'm looking for."

Turning serious, the coach added: "I'm looking to see how we respond to adversity."

He didn't get that opportunity against LeMoyne-Owen and Tusculum. Just ask him.

TV NOTE: Tonight's game will be televised in Knoxville (Comcast Channel 8, DirecTV Channel 30) and Nashville (Comcast Channel 14).

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