A capacity crowd of nearly 22,000 fans is expected to jam Thompson-Boling Arena for this evening's 8 o'clock tipoff. That's three times the size of the biggest crowd the Rebels have played before thus far – 7,200 vs. Southern Miss on Dec. 28 – and that was on a neutral court in Southaven, Miss.
Moreover, tonight's crowd will seem downright humongous compared to the sparse turnouts the Rebels performed before in games against DePaul (207), LaSalle (205) and Clemson (324) on their recent visit to Puerto Rico for the San Juan Shootout.
It's a safe bet Ole Miss players haven't encountered anything approaching the level of hostility they'll face tonight at TBA, either. They've played just one game on an opponent's court this season, winning 76-67 before 5, 574 fans at Central Florida on Dec. 8.
UT's students return to class today following a lengthy holiday break, so Tennessee's crowd should be far more vocal and far more animated than anything Ole Miss has seen to date.
"I'd like to present our athletic administration with a real crowd-control problem," Pearl said. "That would be a wonderful challenge."
Although Ole Miss relies heavily on freshman point guard Chris Warren, the Vol coach does not expect the partisan crowd – no matter how loud it is – to rattle the Rebel rookie.
"I don't know whether or not we'll be able to rattle them," Pearl said. "They've had a number of neutral-site games, and they've got enough leadership and experience (to deal with hostile fans)."
The Rebels' signature victory to date was an 85-82 defeat of Clemson in San Juan. Those same Tigers nearly upset North Carolina last weekend.
"Clemson came close to beating North Carolina, probably should've," Pearl noted. "If they had, you would've looked at this as an even more impressive (Ole Miss) team."
Based on talent and depth, this could be the best UT team in program history. This might be the best Ole Miss squad in program history, also. As Pearl noted, "We could be playing, in the first (regular-season conference) game, the team we'll be competing with for the SEC Championship."
Like Tennessee, Ole Miss is a team with a lot of offensive options. Four starters average double-figure scoring, led by Warren and senior post Dwayne Curtis at 15.2 points each.
"They have great balance," Pearl said.
In addition to Curtis and Warren, the Rebels' other starters are 6-5 Eniel Polynice (12.1 points per game), 6-5 David Huertas (10.6) and 6-8, 240-pound Kenny Williams (8.5). Curtis (8.2) and Williams (8.0) rank among the SEC's top five in rebounds, while Polynice ranks sixth in steals (2.08 per game).
"They have a number of players who are improved," Pearl said. "Huertas, who came over (as a transfer) from Florida has gotten better. And Polynice is playing great basketball for them now."