Vols seek 'something special'

The rubber is about to meet the road for the Tennessee Basketball Vols, starting with tonight's 6 o'clock Central tipoff at Vanderbilt.

The Commodore clash kicks off a critical stretch which sees the Big Orange play four of its next five games on the road. Following tonight's game in Nashville, the 12th-ranked Vols visit third-ranked Kentucky on Saturday, host Georgia (Feb. 17), then visit South Carolina (Feb. 20 ) and Florida Feb. 23).

That's a bona-fide gauntlet right there but that's what is facing the Big Orange, ready or not. Head coach Bruce Pearl feels a bit more optimistic about his team's chances of surviving the gauntlet, since the Vols are coming off an impressive 79-53 blowout of South Carolina last Saturday.

"You feel better about how you're playing," he said, "and now you feel like maybe you've put yourself in position to have a chance because of how we're playing."

The gauntlet starts with the top two teams in the SEC East. Kentucky leads at 7-1. Vanderbilt is 6-2, like Tennessee, but owns the advantage of having beaten the Vols in Knoxville 13 days ago.

Losing tonight in Nashville and Saturday in Lexington would drop Tennessee to 6-4 in league play and 2-4 in divisional play, dealing a serious blow to its hopes of repeating as SEC East champ. A split of the Vandy/Kentucky road trip, conversely, would leave UT very much in the chase.

"Obviously, our next two opponents are people that are ahead of us in the standings, so they're opportunities," Pearl said. "We know the challenges of playing in Nashville and Lexington but we're looking up at those teams, so if we're going to defend our SEC East championship, we're going to have to do something special."

The Vols did something special last Saturday night, getting their struggling offense on track long enough to burn South Carolina for 79 points. That's the most UT has scored since beating Auburn 81-55 on Jan. 14. The performance showed the Vols are still capable of scoring in transition if they pick their spots wisely and execute properly.

"The guys handled the ball very well," Pearl said, "and we made plays going fast, as well as making plays going slow."

One huge key to tonight's game is the play of Vol post Wayne Chism. Limited by a sore knee, he scored just 8 points on 2-of-9 shooting in a Jan. 27 loss to Vanderbilt at Knoxville. He'll enter the rematch coming off a career-best 30-point effort last Saturday.

"It's all predicated on us getting him the ball," teammate Steven Pearl said. "If we get him the ball he's going to score. He's one of the best big men in the country. He can score around the basket if we just get the ball in to him inside. Wayne's our leader, and we've got to go to him more."

Vanderbilt knows this, of course, and will be sagging on Chism each time he gets the ball on the block. That means the Vols will need to hit some outside shots to loosen up the Commodores' zone.

"Vanderbilt's playing very well right now," Bruce Pearl said. "It's going to be very challenging."

The Vols are looking forward to the challenge, however - one player in particular. Freshman Kenny Hall is eager to check out the odd configuration of Memorial Gym, where the benches are along the baselines instead of the sidelines.

"They say it's one of the funnest places to play," Hall said. "It looks crazy from watching on TV, so I'm looking forward to playing there."

NOTES: Here's a good omen for UT fans: The Vols are 3-0 in Tuesday night games and 2-0 in ESPN telecasts, and this is a Tuesday night game being shown on ESPN.... Point guard Jermaine Beal, who burned Tennessee for 25 points in the Jan. 27 meeting at Knoxville, continues to lead Vandy in scoring at 14.4 points per game.... The Commodores' other probable starters are 6-11 A.J. Ogilvy (13.5 ppg), 6-7 Jeffery Taylor (13.3 ppg), 6-3 Brad Tinsley (7.8 ppg) and 6-7 Andre Walker (6.0 ppg). Ogilvy is the top rebounder at 6.2 per game, with Taylor second at 5.3.... Tennessee leads the SEC in 3-point shooting defense at 30.0 percent but allowed Vandy to hit 57.1 percent (8 of 14) in the earlier meeting at Knoxville.... Bruce Pearl stands 2-2 in games at Vanderbilt - winning 68-59 in 2006, losing 82-81 in 2007, losing 72-69 in 2008 and winning 76-63 in 2009.

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