"It's a very important game for us," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl conceded earlier this week. "Obviously, (one reason is) to get our confidence going and try to play better basketball."
The Vols (10-5 overall, 1-1 SEC) aren't exactly brimming with confidence these days. A consensus preseason pick to repeat as league champs, the Big Orange already has lost as many games in 2008-09 as it did in all of 2007-08. Some observers consider Tennessee a major disappointment but Pearl isn't ready to go there.
"Not yet," he said. "This year we were picked to win the league because there was no other obvious pick and because Tyler Smith came back. Instead of losing five of my top nine players, we would've lost six of the top nine (had Smith opted for the NBA)."
As UT fans are acutely aware, Tennessee's defense has been torched on a regular basis by opposing guards this season. The humiliation peaked when Jodie Meeks hung 54 points on the Vols in Tuesday night's 90-72 home loss to Kentucky.
The rest of the starting lineup for the Gamecocks consists of 6-7 230-pound sophomore Mike Holmes (11.5 points, 8.1 rebounds per game), 6-7 200-pound junior Dominique Archie (11.1 points, 7.0 rebounds) and 6-2, 193-pound junior Brandis Raley-Ross (7.1 points per game).
South Carolina is off to a good start (12-3 overall, 1-1 SEC) under first-year coach Darrin Horn. He previously coached at Western Kentucky, where his teams gave Pearl's Vols fits before bowing 93-79 in 2006 at Knoxville and 88-82 in 2007 at Nashville.
"We played against him at Western Kentucky a couple of times, and both were tough, close games," Pearl said of Horn. "He does a great job with ball-screen offense.... Their attitude's changed. You can see they're playing with confidence."
Tennessee, meanwhile, is playing with the home-court advantage. Of course, familiar surroundings didn't help in recent losses to Gonzaga and Kentucky. After three setbacks in the past four games, though, Pearl is happy for any edge he can get.
"Coming off a loss," he said, "it's a good time to be playing at home."
Only if you win.