With star point guard Ronald Steele slowed by ankle problems for much of the season, Alabama (19-7 overall, 6-6 SEC) has been a disappointing team thus far. The Tide has been especially bad in SEC road games – losing its first three by 27 points (88-61) at Arkansas, by 21 points (94-73) at Vanderbilt and by 24 points (81-57) at Auburn.
Both Steele's ankle and Alabama's performance level have improved lately, however. In its last three road tests the Tide won 73-70 at LSU, lost 75-69 at Ole Miss and fell 76-67 at Florida. So, Tennessee's home-floor advantage may not be nearly as significant tonight as it might've been a month ago, when Bama was the picture of futility on the road.
"Alabama's playing better right now," Pearl said. "It's been a tough season for them, off the court, in a lot of ways. There's been a lot of challenges but they've managed to play through their challenges."
Speaking of challenges, Tennessee faces an imposing challenge in trying to handle Bama's front line. It features 6-10, 220-pound Jermareo Davidson (14.5 points, 8.3 rebounds per game), 6-8, 265-pound Richard Hendrix (15.0 points, 8.9 rebounds) and 6-6, 215-pound Alonzo Gee (13.0 points, 5.4 rebounds).
"We don't match up with them," Pearl said. "They have tremendous size in the front line, and that includes their small forward.... Alabama will try to go inside, and we will need to find a way to keep them out of there. They're an extremely talented team."
Although the Tide has underachieved to date, the Vol coach thinks Bama has the horses to finish strongly, much as it did three years ago.
"Back in 2004 they lost five or six games in a row in the SEC, yet that team went on and made an Elite Eight run," Pearl recalled. "Alabama's got Elite Eight talent and potential. And it looks to me like they're starting to play better together."
Tennessee brings an 18-9 overall record and a 6-6 league mark into tonight's game, which will be televised by Lincoln Financial Sports.