Lebo's lament

Jeff Lebo knew what was what. So when he briefly addressed the Big Orange Tip-Off Club seven hours before his Wednesday night game against Tennessee, he had a suggestion for Vols coach Bruce Pearl.

``Let's talk about Memphis,'' Auburn's coach said as Pearl entered the room. ``Let's talk about Memphis.''

Anything to distract the No. 2 team in the nation.

Anything to distract the best team in the SEC.

Anything to take the focus off his six-man squad.

Lebo's ploy didn't work.

Tennessee was focused enough to jump on Auburn 46-20 at halftime thanks to a 30-5 run and routed the short-handed Tigers 89-70 at Thompson-Boling Arena as the crowd chanted ``We want Memphis, we want Memphis'' in the final minutes.

UT's 30th consecutive home win was sparked by Ramar Smith who had 19 points, matching his total against Auburn last year. His previous SEC high this year had been 10. His career high is 22.

Chris Lofton, who hit four threes to give him 402 for his career; scored 12 points and moved ahead of Bernard King into No. 6 on UT's all-time scoring list. Lofton is only the seventh player to crack the 400 mark for treys. Tyler Smith had another double-double: 13 points, 13 rebounds.

Pearl has tried his best to keep Tennessee's focus this week on the Tigers of Auburn, not Memphis. Mission accomplished.

He said it was ``human nature'' to perhaps peek ahead. But he kept emphasizing Auburn is a more important game because it would lead the way to Tennessee's first outright men's SEC regular-season basketball championship in 41 years.

Pearl remembered how his team blew a double-digit lead in the second half and lost at Auburn as the Tigers went on an 18-0 surge. He said it was the first time in his career he endured a three-game losing streak.

He talked about how Auburn has two players that are a tough matchup for the Vols – 6-8 center/forward Quan Prowell and 6-4 Frank Tolbert, an off guard moved to power forward, just like UT's Dane Bradshaw of previous seasons.

Tennessee had trouble with Prowell and Tolbert last year. They combined for 45 points. This time, they combined for 45 again but it wasn't nearly enough.

Pearl said playing against Auburn was like ``playing against six Josh Tabbs.'' Maybe against six injured Josh Tabbs – at least, on this night. Auburn, which twice beat Ole Miss this season, was no competition for the Vols.

Pearl downplayed his team's accomplishments. The Vols are 24-2 and ranked No. 2 in the country. Pearl isn't sure his team is THAT good – although you don't want to trade the publicity garnered by a 1-2 matchup against Memphis.

``We're not the smartest team,'' Pearl said. ``I don't know if we've earned the right to say we're a team that's found a way to win. Maybe we're the most lucky or the most resilient.

``I just think we haven't found enough ways to lose.''

That doesn't sound like a coach whose team is off to a program-best 24-2 record with the highest ranking in school history.

Maybe that was Pearl's way of keeping his troops grounded before playing against the nation's top-ranked team.

While Pearl has done a remarkable job building Tennessee's program, he has always been mindful of respecting Tennessee's tradition.

After his highly successful first year, UT's marketing department had a couple of slogans for year No. 2: Pearl Jam and Pearl Harbor were discussed, Pearl said. He didn't like either one.

``My focus was on embracing the past,'' Pearl said. ``We haven't started anything. We're just bringing it back.''

Thus, the slogan: ``Tennessee basketball – it's back.''

Only, it came out: ``Tennessee basketball – we're back.''

Pearl said he hit the roof.

``We hadn't done enough to say we're back,'' said Pearl, who wanted to tear up all the posters and stickers, except it would have been too expensive to start over.

But he did acknowledge: ``We're getting closer to the time when we can say we're back and we can be included (in UT's tradition).''

Tennessee can more than add to the tradition with a win at Memphis. The Vols are 2-10 against top-ranked teams. The wins were against Kentucky in 1966 and South Carolina in 1969.

But in UT's favor, in the last six matchups of 1-2 teams, No. 2 has won five. And in the only matchups of in-state 1-2 teams – Cincinnati-Ohio State twice, Duke-North Carolina twice – No. 2 has won all four.

Those stats have been revealed on ESPN and in USA Today. All because No. 1 Memphis is hosting No. 2 Tennessee this Saturday.

It's rare to see a 1-2 matchup in the regular season. It's even rarer when those two teams come from the same state.

The state of Tennessee is where it's at in college basketball this weekend.

As Lebo talked to the Big Orange group, you could almost sense a bit of envy as he thought about Memphis vs. Tennessee at The FedEx Forum on Saturday night.

``We're looking at that in Alabama,'' Lebo said. ``Maybe we can get an Alabama-Auburn 1-2 matchup.''

A coach can dream, can't he?


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