It's deja vu for Hoop Vols

Bruce Pearl's best Tennessee basketball teams were short-handed underdogs. Well, those days are back ... at least the short-handed underdogs part.

The recent suspension of 6-7 preseason All-American Tyler Smith, 6-10 Brian Williams, 6-6 Cameron Tatum and 5-10 Melvin Goins leaves the 16th-ranked Vols (10-2) with just six scholarship players heading into Wednesday night's game against Charlotte.

The six are 6-9 senior Wayne Chism, 6-9 freshman Kenny Hall, 6-8 senior J.P. Prince, 6-8 sophomore Renaldo Woolridge, 6-7 sophomore Scotty Hopson and 6-3 senior Bobby Maze.

Three walk-ons figure to play key backup roles - 6-5 junior Steven Pearl, 6-3 freshman Skylar McBee and 6-3 junior Josh Bone, a transfer from Southern Illinois.

McBee already is in the regular rotation, averaging 14 minutes and 4.4 points per game. He is shooting 34.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3. Pearl has played in six games, averaging 3.0 minutes. Bone has played in two games, averaging 3.5 minutes.

The starting lineup against Charlotte will consist of Chism, Woolridge, Prince, Hopson and Maze. Hall will back up Chism, with Pearl probably backing up Woolridge, McBee likely backing up both Prince and Hopson, with Bone backing up Maze.

The absence of Smith, Tatum, Goins and Williams costs the Vols 32.3 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. That could be critical against a Charlotte team whose work to date includes an 87-65 win at Louisville.

"The task at hand is formidable," Pearl said. "Charlotte comes in with a 10-3 record. They've got a signature win - a very dominating win - over Louisville. They just came off a game the other night where they had a lead over Georgia Tech with under two minutes to go in the game."

Pearl is known for wearing down opponents by utilizing a long bench and a taxing fullcourt press. With the Vols down to six scholarship players, though, he'll have neither advantage Wednesday night against the 49ers.

"We'll play nine," he said. "The six scholarship players will play the lion's share. We won't be wearing anybody out. We won't be pressing people. There will have to be some adjustments made, absolutely."

Pearl inherited a team viewed as short on talent and depth in 2005-06 but won the SEC East, went 22-8 and finished with a No. 18 national ranking. With essentially the same cast - minus point guard C.J. Watson - the Vols went 24-11 in 2006-07. Pearl's best squad was the 2007-08 team, which was small and scrappy but no longer unheralded. It went 31-5 and finished No. 5 nationally.

Whether the current team can overcome its sudden lack of firepower and depth remains to be seen. The game with Charlotte should provide a decent barometer.

"I don't know how good this team is right now, with six scholarship players and three walk-ons in our top nine," Pearl said. "I'll learn a lot about this group on Wednesday night and facing the challenges ahead."

Pearl has faced this type of situation before. During his days as head man at Southern Indiana, he once suspended four players for missing curfew prior to a big game.

"We traveled to Northern Kentucky for the league championship and went there without four starters," Pearl recalled. "We beat Northern Kentucky for the conference championship. The guys kind of rallied around each other."

Perhaps the 2009-10 Vols will rally around each other, as well, offsetting their shortages in firepower and depth with energy and heart. That formula worked awfully well in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08.

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