Fan support

Each time Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl watches pre-game warm-ups at Thompson-Boling Arena, he is grateful for the 10 scholarship players who are in front of him ... and the 20,000 or so fans who are behind him.

Pearl believes the ardent support of Vol followers has helped rescue the program from the listless state it was in when he took over in March of 2005.

"The biggest change in the Tennessee job – what has made this now a very good job in college basketball – is the support and the upgrading of the facilities," Pearl said this week. "Without the support, this was not as good a job because you didn't have a home-court advantage."

And, as most fans already know, a home-court advantage is huge in college basketball. Duke is known for the Cameron Crazies. Animated crowds at Kentucky's Rupp Arena and Florida's O'Connell Center make those exceptionally difficult places for an opposing team to visit. Spurred by a raucous crowd at Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas recently dismantled a gifted Alabama team 88-61.

By comparison, UT's Thompson-Boling Arena was essentially a neutral site until 2005-06. Fans weren't excited about visiting the facility and blue-chip prospects certainly weren't excited about the prospect of playing there.

"It was used against us in recruiting and it worked against us in outcomes of games late," Pearl said. "The fact we've got the fans behind this team makes a huge difference."

Now that Pearl has fans flocking to home games, Step 2 is to get them flocking to ROAD games. He's hoping for a large turnout of orange-clad boosters for tonight's 8.p.m. EST tip-off against Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym in Nashville.

"When we go on the road the fans aren't fans," he said. "They're witnesses."

With a smug grin, the coach added: "Not that I anticipate any type of crime taking place."

Tennessee brings a 13-2 record, a No. 19 national ranking and a nine-game winning streak into tonight's game. This will be only the Vols' second road test in their first 16 outings. They played five games at neutral sites (three in Nashville, two in New York City) but the only real road game to date was a 77-67 defeat of Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 27. The other nine games were held at Thompson-Boling Arena.

So, what's the key to overcoming a hostile crowd in an SEC road game?

"It sounds cliche-ish," Vol senior Dane Bradshaw says, "but it's believing in the character of your team, being patient and believing in what you're doing. We have young guys but I think they're very mentally tough and they won't get affected by the home crowd."

If tonight's game follows form, the outcome will be settled in the game's final minute. Ten of the last 11 UT-Vandy games have been decided by margins of 10 points or less. Pearl expects another nail-biter tonight.

"I think every game is going to come down to the end," he said. "At least, I'd like for them to come down to players making plays at the end. That means we're in the game and we've got a chance. I don't see us going start to finish against anybody the rest of the way."

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