Tide is rolling

Every college basketball program wants to be playing its best in March, and the teams who meet Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena certainly qualify on that score.

Tennessee is riding its first three-game winning streak of the SEC season, having beaten Mississippi State 81-76 at Knoxville, Florida 79-75 at Gainesville and South Carolina 86-70 at Columbia in the past 11 days. The performance vs. the Gamecocks probably was UT's finest of the season.

Sunday's opponent, Alabama, is playing its best ball of 2008-09, as well. Before losing 77-73 Tuesday night to Auburn, the Tide had put together a three-game winning streak of its own – beating Mississippi State 87-85 in Tuscaloosa, trouncing Arkansas 88-67 in Tuscaloosa, then hammering Ole Miss 90-69 at Oxford, a place where UT lost by 16 points just nine days earlier.

Although Philip Pearson stands just 4-6 since stepping in for the resigned Mark Gottfried a month ago, the interim coach seems to have Bama on the upswing heading into Sunday's showdown in K-Town.

"That game is huge," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "Alabama's playing much, much better. They're the only team in the league to beat LSU (before Vandy did so Wednesday night). They're a very talented team and they're playing very well right now."

Pearson concedes that his team is doing a better job of executing its assignments lately.

"I've been real pleased over the last two or three weeks," he said. "I thought we've been making some strides. We won three games in a row – overtime against Mississippi State, a good win against Arkansas, then we go on the road (to Oxford) and knock that one out, too."

The interim coach is hopeful that the Auburn loss didn't kill the team's momentum.

"Obviously, I don't want to take anything away from Auburn," Pearson said. "They've been playing very well, (winning) seven out of eight – hottest team in the league – and they played better than we did the other night. We had some chances but didn't take advantage of our opportunities."

After a day off on Wednesday, Bama should have its legs AND its enthusiasm back when it shows up for Sunday's noon tipoff at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"After having some success and winning three games in a row, we had a tough one Tuesday night," he said. "We've got a challenge to see if we can bounce back and re-elevate our level of play to where we were."

Whereas Bama is looking to recapture its momentum, Tennessee is looking to maintain its momentum. The Vols' recent outings suggest they are peaking.

"Obviously, Tennessee's playing very well," Pearson said. "They sit atop the Eastern Division. We know it'll be a very tough place to play. It's the last game of the year – Senior Day for Tennessee, they'll have a great crowd in there – and it'll be a challenge for us."

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