Arkansas (14-15 overall, 7-7 SEC) occupies second place in the Western Division heading into tonight's game. The Vols then conclude the regular season with a Saturday night visit to Mississippi State (21-8, 9-5).
"We're about to face the top two teams in the West," Vol coach Bruce Pearl noted earlier this week. "Arkansas is a team that won five straight SEC games. And Mississippi State has clinched at least a tie for the SEC West championship.
"The good news is that these teams are getting us right and ready for postseason. It's now time to see if Tennessee can start to play its best basketball heading into postseason."
Although they are coming off a memorable upset of No. 2 Kentucky, the Vols are just 6-5 in their last 11 games. They were 15-2 prior to that.
"The back stretch for Tennessee has been a very difficult back stretch the second half of the season," Pearl conceded, "but the only positive part of that is that if can win some of those games it gets you ready for conference tournament play and NCAA Tournament play."
Pearl plans to start the same five players in Game 29 that he started in Game 28. That kind of stability has been rare in a season marked by patchwork lineups. Two major contributors (Josh Tabb, Emmanuel Negedu) were lost in preseason. The star player (Tyler Smith) was dismissed on Jan. 8 and three other key players missed four to nine games under suspension. Starter Wayne Chism and backup Cameron Tatum have battled injuries.
To his credit, Pearl has carried on without making excuses.
"You have injuries, you have different situations that come up - foul trouble and suspensions and so on," he said. "You do the best you can with what you have. When you lose somebody the other guys have to rally around and everybody's got to step up.
"That's what happened with us. When the roster got shuffled some guys that weren't playing a lot started to play a lot, and they really responded well and helped us. Then, as the other (suspended) guys started coming back, it improved our depth. We welcomed 'em back with open arms, and those guys came back a little fresher and a little bit more appreciative of the opportunity to play."
Although the loss of Tyler Smith was a big blow, the Vols have gone 11-5 without him. Several players picked up the slack, especially Chism and Scotty Hopson.
"I think both guys have improved," Pearl said. "Offensively, they're guys we definitely look to. Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince have taken over more of the playmaking responsibilities. Your whole team has to absorb the loss of a great player like Tyler."
Maze, Prince and Chism will be playing their final home game this evening. Naturally, they're hoping to make this "Senior Night" a memorable one, and that has Arkansas's head coach worried.
"We've got a very difficult game at Tennessee," John Pelphrey said. "It's one of the better teams in our league, and it's certainly a great environment. It won't be much fun playing on their Senior Night. They have great senior leadership, and those young men have accomplished a lot in their time. That will just make it more difficult."
NOTES: Sophomore point guard Courtney Fortson leads Arkansas in scoring (18.5 points per game) and assists (6.0). Pearl tried hard to sign the 5-11, 180-pounder coming out of high school.... The other Razorback starters are 6-0 Rotnei Clarke (15.8 points per game), 6-7 freshman Marshawn Powell (15.6 points, 6.7 rebounds), 6-3 guard Marcus Britt (3.9 points) and 6-9 Delvon Johnson (2.7 points).... Michael Washington, a 6-9, 240-pounder, has been slowed by an ankle injury but might be healthy enough to start this evening.... Tonight's game will be televised by CSS.