Super Mario is super concern

Tennessee had trouble handling 6-8, 240-pound Irwin Dudley in a 76-71 homefloor loss to Alabama 10 days ago, but the Vols will be facing an even bigger challenge Wednesday night, when Mississippi State's Mario Austin comes to town.

Austin is a 6-9, 260-pound bruiser who ranks seventh in SEC scoring (16.2 points per game), second in field goal percentage (55.0), third in overall rebounding (7.9 per game) and third in offensive rebounding (2.95 per game).

''The big guy inside, Austin, is a load,'' UT head man Buzz Peterson said at his Tuesday news conference. ''When he gets angles on you, he's tough. He can wear you down.''

Mississippi State (18-7 overall and 8-6 in SEC play) is playing to improve its seeding for the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, so the Bulldogs will be motivated to play well. Making the challenge even tougher for Tennessee is the fact Austin & Company are coming off a woeful performance in a 53-51 upset loss at Arkansas.

''Arkansas did a tremendous job against him, sticking with their zone and limiting him to five points,'' Peterson said of Austin. ''I thought they did an excellent job of defending Mississippi State.''

While UT's Brandon Crump and Austin wage war on the inside, Tennessee's C.J. Watson and MSU's Derrick Zimmerman will tangle on the perimeter. Watson leads the SEC with 5.64 assists per game, while Zimmerman checks in at 5.3 per game. Zimmerman, a 6-3 senior, will give Watson, a 6-2 freshman, a major test.

''Zimmerman out front is a quick penetrator who can get to the rack with height and get there quickly,'' Peterson said.

To win, Tennessee (15-10, 7-7) must do a much better job in its transition defense, which has been woeful during the Vols' recent four-game losing streak. UT players were late getting back against LSU last Saturday, enabling the Tigers to score on several run-outs and drain a Thompson-Boling Arena record 17 3-pointers.

''We've got to get back in transition because their (MSU) guards are very quick,'' Peterson said. ''We've got to be able to do a much better job in our transition defense. Our defensive transition has been horrendous.''

In addition to losing their last four games, the Vols have lost the mental edge and the confidence that carried them through a six-game winning streak last month. Unless they find those things in a hurry, they're doomed to fall again.

My pick: Mississippi State 76, Tennessee 70.

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