UT vs. Middle, part 3

Tennessee may have played its finest game of the Bruce Pearl era against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 20, 2007 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Vols shot 64.9 percent from the floor, while limiting the opponent to 31.0. They drained a program-record 16 shots from 3-point range. They hit 57.1 percent of their treys (16 of 28). They committed just nine turnovers, while forcing 29. They led 61-21 at halftime, substituted liberally, yet continued to pull away.

Final score: Tennessee 109, Middle Tennessee 40. Simply put, it was a beat-down of epic proportion.

The venue shifted to mid-state for last year's rematch, however, and the new site featured a new script. Tennessee had to scratch and claw to slip out of Murfreesboro with a 76-66 victory.

Meeting No. 3 of the Bruce Pearl era takes place Friday night in the Sun Belt Classic doubleheader at a so-called "neutral" site - the Sommet Center in Nashville. Given that the arena is located 178 miles from Knoxville and just 32 miles from Murfreesboro, Pearl sees nothing neutral about it.

"The Sun Belt Classic is like a home game for Middle Tennessee," the Vol coach said. "It'll be their game, their announcers. They'll do everything they can to make that feel as home-like as they can. We'll wear road uniforms."

Pearl isn't complaining, however. He believes his team grows up a bit each time it ventures outside of Thompson-Boling Arena.

"It's good for us to get away and get into a neutral site," he said. "And we've got good history in Nashville."

He's correct. The Vols are 8-3 in Music City during Pearl's first four years at the Vol helm, including a 2-2 record against SEC rival Vanderbilt. They've won six of seven games at the Sommet Center - beating Murray State (64-53), Fordham (78-71), UNC Wilmington (87-75), Oklahoma State (79-77), Western Kentucky (88-82) and Marquette (80-68). The loss came against South Carolina (79-71) in the 2006 SEC Tournament.

"We're 6-1 at the Sommet Center, and the crowds every year have gotten a little more in our favor," Pearl said. "Obviously, this is a game Middle is going to promote tremendously, and I'm sure they're going to get as many Raiders up there as they possibly can."

Middle Tennessee learned in the 109-40 loss two years ago that it cannot run with the Vols. And it learned last year that it can be competitive with the Vols by keeping the pace deliberate. So, the Blue Raiders will be looking to slow the tempo Friday night.

As Pearl noted: "What you see against teams at that high mid-major level that are a little undersized is that they're able to control tempo a little because they're smaller and quicker, and reduce the number of possessions during the course of a game."

Tennessee brings a 6-1 record and a No. 9 national ranking into the game. The Vols are very much a work in progress, however, with a long way to go to reach their potential.

"I think defensively, I would like to see us apply a little more pressure," Pearl said, "and see if we could be a little more disruptive on the defensive end."

Offensively, the Vols are shooting a healthy 50.8 percent from the floor. They hit just 47.5 percent last time out in a 78-66 defeat of ETSU, however.

"We continue to struggle with finishing at the rim," Pearl said. "My job is to try and help us get high-percentage looks. Once we get the ball in there, obviously, it's the players' jobs to finish the play.

"I was really pleased with the looks that we got (vs. ETSU). We've just got to do a better job finishing around the basket."

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