Whereas the close call with Prairie View provided a wake-up call, the lopsided loss to the Longhorns may have provided a reality check. Tennessee (5-1) did not resemble a top-20 team, even though it is ranked 11th by The Associated Press and 12th by the coaches heading into tonight's action.
In addition, North Carolina A&T should provide a much tougher test than Middle Tennessee did. The Aggies are 4-2 and coming off a 96-93 upset of DePaul last Saturday night. Steven Rush paced A&T with 40 points, hitting a school-record ten 3-point baskets in the process.
"That's a team that's going to the NCAA tournament, a team that beat DePaul in Chicago this weekend," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "They gave Pittsburgh a good first half and almost beat them. They come in 4-2 and won a lot of games last year. There are seven seniors and 11 lettermen returning. They are deep."
They are tough on the boards, too. The Aggies outrebound their foes by an average of 5.3 per game. Conversely, the Vols are being outrebounded by an average of 1.5 per game. That has Pearl concerned.
Ryan Childress is another 6-9, 240-pounder but his inside-outside game makes him a better fit at power forward. Brian Williams, a 6-10, 270-pound freshman has the size Tennessee needs but remains a work in progress. As a result, the Vols don't rebound or defend the post as well as Pearl would like.
"We've made progress in some areas, and in some areas not so. Against certain teams we defended well," the Vol coach said, noting that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said UT's effort against the Mountaineers "was as good as his team has been defended in a long time.
"That was a great compliment, but then the next night we go up against Texas and don't defend their transition, fast-break basketball very well."
Like its defense, Tennessee's offense has been sporadic. Sometimes it looks awesome. Sometimes it looks awful.
"Offensively, I would say we are way behind where I would like us to be – partly because we have spent so much time on defense, partly because some guys are playing new roles," Pearl said. "I think with the number of guys we are playing – our rotation is at 10 guys – the cohesiveness is not there."
The key for Tennessee – offensively AND defensively – appears to be senior guard JaJuan Smith. He hit a career-high 32 points in the blowout of Middle Tennessee. When Smith struggles offensively – making just 2 of 12 shots vs. Prairie View and 4 of 11 vs. Texas – the Vols struggle, as well.
Strangely enough, Smith's prowess on defense may hinder him a bit on offense.
"JaJuan can be the best defensive guard in the SEC," Pearl said. "He's got the ability to make plays in the full court and the half court. We can put him on the other team's best player and that gives us the best chance for success.
"He is going to have a tough assignment every night, and that can take away from the offensive end. How he plays is a real key right now for how we play as a team."