Balancing act

The Tennessee Vols feature three guys who score between 13.2 and 15.3 points per game, yet they're only half as balanced as today's opponent.

Xavier features six players who average double-figure scoring, including all five starters. Here's the breakdown of the Musketeers' starting five:

Josh Duncan, a 6-9, 238-pound senior, averages 10.4 points per game. Stanley Burrell, a 6-3, 210-pound senior, averages 10.9. Derrick Brown, a 6-8, 225-pound sophomore, averages 11.4. B.J. Raymond, a 6-6, 226-pound junior, and Drew Lavender, a 5-7, 153-pound senior, average 12.3 each.

Despite his lack of stature, Lavender is a contender for the Cousy and Naismith Awards who averages 5.0 assists per game.

The Musketeers bring an 8-2 record and a No. 24 national ranking into today's game on their home court in Cincinnati. The Vols bring a 10-1 record and a No. 12 ranking. They are expected to start their usual lineup of 6-9 Wayne Chism (7.7 points per game), 6-7 Tyler Smith (13.2), 6-2 JaJuan Smith (14.8), 6-2 Chris Lofton (15.3) and 6-3 Jordan Howell (7.7).

The game will be televised by ESPN with a 2 p.m. tipoff.

Vol head coach Bruce Pearl suggests that Xavier is the second-best team the Vols have faced this season. The only better team, he says, is Texas, which trounced Tennessee 97-78 on Nov. 24.

"Xavier will be comparable with Western Kentucky, probably a little better," Pearl said, referring to a Hilltopper team that pushed Tennessee to the limit before losing 88-82 last Saturday in Nashville.

Still, Xavier may not be Tennessee's toughest foe this month. Following today's game, the Vols travel to Seattle Dec. 29 to face Gonzaga, which is based in nearby Spokane.

"There will be nothing neutral about the KeyArena," Pearl said, referring to the game site.

Although the Vols have won 10 of their 11 games, their erratic play has raised a lot of questions. Those questions may be answered when they face teams the caliber of Xavier and Gonzaga.

"We've traveled some, we've had some good opponents," Pearl said. "We're prepared to see where we're at right now. This is another step-up situation."

Tennessee played 26 very good minutes last Wednesday night against UNC-Asheville, leading by 27 points (64-37) with just under 14 minutes to play. The Vols squandered most of the lead, however, allowing the Bulldogs to pull within nine in the final minutes before bowing 86-73.

Twenty-six minutes won't be enough to prevail against opponents the caliber of Xavier and Gonzaga.

"I just think we've got to come out and hustle more, give a better effort in the second half," Vol sophomore J.P. Prince said. "I don't think we came out mentally tough. We really disappointed ourselves and we've got to improve on that.

"We can't have that against Xavier or Gonzaga."

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