Like Tennessee, Texas utilizes an undersized, three-guard lineup. The Longhorns' star player is 6-9, 225-pound freshman Kevin Durant, who averages 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. The "old man" is A.J. Abrams, a 5-10, 155-pound sophomore who averages 16.6 points per game. D.J. Augustin is a 5-11, 175-pound freshman who averages 13.0 points and 5.9 assists per game. Justin Mason, a 6-2, 185-pound freshman, averages 9.7 points per game. The other starter is Damion James, a 6-7, 227-pound freshman who chips in 7.5 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Pearl calls the 'Horns "a very, very talented team," adding: "They're good and they're playing better."
There are a number of intriguing questions surrounding this game. To wit:
- How will the Vols respond to the loss of starting point guard Jordan Howell, out six to eight weeks with a fractured right hand?
- How much help can Tennessee get from senior forward Dane Bradshaw, who has a bone bruise and tendinitis in both shoulders?
- With Tennessee's students on holiday break, how significant will the Vols' home-court advantage be?
- Is Texas looking to avenge last year's humbling 95-78 loss in Austin, even though all five starters from that team have departed?
"This is sort of the rubber match of the three years we've played Texas," Pearl noted. "They beat us badly (95-70 in 2004) in Maui, and we beat them badly last year in Austin."
Actually, Pearl is being modest. Buzz Peterson was Tennessee's head coach when the Vols lost to Texas in '04.
Despite a 9-2 record that includes the consecutive defeats of Memphis, Western Kentucky and Oklahoma State, Tennessee is unranked this season. Thus, today's shootout could be a "statement" game for the Vols.
"EVERY game at this point is a statement game," Pearl said.
With four freshmen among Tennessee's top eight players, the Vol coach figured this team's play would be inconsistent. He was right but he's OK with that, he said, "as long as our effort is consistent."
The effort was somewhat erratic in November but Pearl is happy with the focus and intensity he has gotten from his players in December.
"That's the one thing I've begun to see," he said. "I'm having to spaz out less at my players because they are now figuring out the intensity level you need to play at. Our guards in particular have consistently shown the ability to make life difficult for opposing guards with ball pressure and some things that we do."