Payback time in Tennessee

Bruce Pearl won his first 13 home games as Tennessee's basketball coach before Arkansas pierced his air of invincibility with a stunning 73-69 victory on Feb. 25, 2006.

He promptly dropped another home game to Kentucky four days later.

"My sophomore year we were hot out of the gate, then toward the end of the year we kinda faded off," Vol senior Chris Lofton recalled with a frown. "Arkansas was the one that started the loss column for us – them and Kentucky – at the end of the year."

Since those back-to-back home losses to Arkansas and Kentucky, Tennessee has swept 28 consecutive outings at Thompson-Boling Arena, giving Pearl a 41-2 record in the Valley of the Vols.

The 28-game streak will be in jeopardy Wednesday night, however, when Arkansas pays its first visit to TBA since shocking the heavily favored Vols two years ago. That should provide extra incentive for Tennessee, even if the head coach won't admit it.

"I think the incentive is that it's got conference championship implications and that they (Razorbacks) are really good," Pearl said. "This is an Arkansas team that has looked this way (tall and talented) the three years I've been in the league."

The Vol coach dismisses the idea of a revenge motive, noting that two of the key players in Arkansas's 2006 win - Ronnie Brewer (9 points, 9 assists) and Jonathan Modica (14 points, 5 assists) are gone. Still, several Hogs who played key roles in '06 are still around for '08, including 7-foot Steven Hill and 6-foot-10 Darian Townes.

"This front-line is for real," Pearl said. "Just size-wise and depth-wise, Arkansas has been one of the most talented teams in our league for the past few years."

He probably won't admit it but the '06 loss to Arkansas ranks with the most disappointing of Pearl's Vol tenure. His team held a commanding 63-49 lead with 8:48 to go, then absolutely unraveled. The Razorbacks made a 15-0 run to go up 64-63, then made just enough clutch plays in the final minutes to record the upset.

Lofton believes the depth-shy Vols simply ran out of gas on that fateful day in 2006. He suspects they're a lot better prepared for this Razorback invasion than they were the last one.

"I think so," he said. "I think this team is deeper and more experienced. We play nine or 10 guys. Back then we just played six or seven guys, and we were getting winded."

Tennessee got a measure of revenge last year by beating the Razorbacks 83-72 at Fayetteville in a game that helped seal the doom of head coach Stan Heath. Lofton figures the '08 Hogs pose a much bigger challenge than the '07 Hogs did, however.

"They're experienced this year; they were young last year," he said. "It's the same team but they're going to be ready to play. We beat them down there last year, and I know they're going to be hungry."

Although Tennessee's players are proud of their 28-game home winning streak, they aren't inclined to discuss it much.

"Not really," Lofton said. "We just don't want nobody to come into our house and get a win. You've got to protect your home court and steal some on the road, win when you're supposed to. That's the mentality we have: You've GOT to defend your home court. It's tough in the SEC but you've got to buckle up and play hard."

Although Tennessee's record in SEC road games (4-1) is almost as strong as its record in SEC home games (4-0), Lofton says there's something special about playing before the home fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"I love that," he said. "When we play at home, it's like a sixth man out there. They get you into it, they get you going. It's like our X Factor."

Of course, even the X Factor wasn't enough to beat Arkansas in '06.


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