UT not limping this time

After limping to the finish line in March of 2006, Tennessee's basketball team is sprinting toward the finish line in March of 2007. The problem is, there's a 290-pound beast of a man blocking the Vols' path.

Tennessee entered the '06 Southeastern Conference Tournament off three losses in its last five regular-season games. With their legs weary and their confidence shaken, the Vols suffered a 79-71 loss to South Carolina in their tourney opener.

The situation is completely different as they head into the 2007 SEC Tournament. This time the Vols have won seven of their last eight games. They have fresh legs and tons of confidence as they prepare to face LSU Thursday night at 9:45 in their tourney opener.

"The good news is, we're fresher, we're deeper," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "We haven't won a championship – we haven't won ANYTHING yet – so all of those things are good mindsets going into the tournament."

The problem is that the Vols must face an LSU team that has been fortified by the return of Glen Davis, a 6-9, 290-pound behemoth who missed three recent games due to injury.

Davis produced 26 points and 11 rebounds in a 71-70 loss at SEC West co-champ Ole Miss on Feb. 14 but, in the process, aggravated a strained muscle in his right leg. After struggling mightily in a 56-50 home-floor loss to Mississippi State, Davis sat out the next three games.

Even without "Big Baby," the Tigers pushed Kentucky before losing 70-63 in Lexington, then shocked Florida 66-56 in Baton Rouge. Davis was sorely missed in an 80-68 setback at Auburn on Feb. 28 but returned to score 11 points in Saturday's 61-52 defeat of South Carolina.

Pearl described LSU as "second only to Florida" among teams he would prefer NOT to face in the conference tournament.

Here's why:

- Davis' return gives LSU an imposing 6-9, 6-8, 6-7 front line.

- Coming off a Final Four appearance in 2006, the Tigers should be motivated to redeem themselves after posting a pitiful 5-11 SEC record.

- LSU's recent performances against Kentucky and Florida suggest the Tigers still can rise to the occasion against quality opposition.

"They're playing better now," Pearl said. "They've got it going again. They beat Florida. They could've beaten Kentucky at Rupp Arena. They won their last game."

Tennessee limited Davis to 5 points on 2-of-10 shooting Feb. 6 when the Vols prevailed 70-67 in Knoxville. LSU coach John Brady called it "probably his worst game of the year." Obviously, Davis will be looking for atonement when the Tigers face UT in Thursday night's rematch.

"It's a tough match-up for us because of their size," Pearl said. "We did a wonderful job at home of beating them. Glen Davis had 5 points. It is very unlikely that is going to be the case again this time. They're going to go to him and they're going to pound it in there.

"The toughest game of the entire tournament for us to win will be the first one."

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