With senior standout Tyler Smith dismissed and three more key players suspended - Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams and Melvin Goins - the Vols are considered longshots to spring the upset. But Wayne Chism may have something to say about that.
The 6-9, 245-pound UT senior is capable of taking over a game. He showed as much by scoring 24 points against No. 6 Purdue on Nov. 23. He showed it again Wednesday against Charlotte, scoring 16 points in the game's first 16 minutes and finishing with 18 points, 6 assists, 5 steals, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Big challenges seem to bring out the best in Chism. In last year's 92-85 loss at Kansas, for instance, he basically held his own against 6-11, 250-pound Jayhawk standout Cole Aldrich. Chism finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 6 blocks; Alrdich had 22 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks.
Chism is eager for the rematch.
"It feels great," he said. "I like the matchup. Every year I play somebody tough, and I love a good matchup."
If Chism can outplay Aldrich, Tennessee's chances to win the game go way up.
"It's going to be a big one," the Vol senior said. "With Aldrich in the post and (Xavier) Henry on the wing, it's going to be a tough game. We all have to step up on defense against these guys and play our game, like we did against Charlotte."
Down to six scholarship players, the Big Orange came out focused and fired up against Charlotte last Wednesday, racing to a 51-29 halftime lead that put the fans on their feet and the 49ers on their heels.
"That was very important," Vol freshman Kenny Hall said. "Hopefully, we can do the same thing come Sunday. We learned we can overcome adversity, and we can build on that. Hopefully, the crowd will show up like they did against Charlotte."
Tennessee's lack of quality depth could be a problem in today's 4:30 tipoff, especially if the game is played at a brisk pace. Still, the Vols are confident they have the stamina to hang with the Jayhawks for 40 minutes.
As sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge put it: "With all the conditioning we do in practice, I think we'll all be able to handle that."
Even if the Vols can handle Kansas' depth, they may not be able to handle the Jayhawks' raw talent. Aldrich averages a double-double - 11.2 points and 10 rebounds per game. Point guard Sherron Collins averages 15.1 points and 4.1 assists per game. Henry, a 6-6, 220-pound freshman, leads the team in scoring (16.1 points per game) and 3-point shooting (47.0 percent).
"Collins is one of the best point guards in the country," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "Aldridge is one of the best posts in the country and Henry is one of the best athletes in the country. And you're not going to believe their size when they stand next to our guys."
GAME NOTES: Collins outplayed UT point guard Bobby Maze in last year's game, producing 26 points and 9 assists to Maze's 14 points and 4 assists. Each man committed 4 turnovers.... Only two foes have shot better than 40 percent from the field against the Jayhawks this season - Radford (42.3) and Cornell (43.6). For the season KU opponents are hitting a mere 34.4 percent..... Collins is coming off a career-high 33-point outing in last Wednesday's 71-66 defeat of Cornell.... Tennessee and Kansas have one common opponent this season. Kansas beat Memphis 57-55 Nov. 17 in the Hall of Fame Classic at St. Louis; Tennessee beat the Tigers 66-59 Dec. 31 at Memphis but the Vols still had 10 scholarship players at the time.... Pearl brings a 35-2 record in non-conference home games into today's showdown.