As 3-0 starts go, Tennessee’s hasn’t been the most impressive.
The seventh-ranked Volunteers host Middle Tennessee State on Tuesday to close out a season-opening homestand, hoping to not have to scramble to avoid a major upset for the second straight game.
Tennessee received the highest preseason ranking in school history, but didn’t play like one of the nation’s best teams Friday against Prairie View A&M. The Vols trailed 36-35 at halftime before going on to win 89-75 in the second round of the StubHub Legends Classic.
Preseason All-American Chris Lofton had his third straight ugly shooting performance, going 3-of-13, while JaJuan Smith was 2-of-12 from the field and Ramar Smith 0-of-12 from the foul line.
Prairie View hit 11 3-pointers and outrebounded Tennessee 48-43, and if not for 30 turnovers, might have pulled the upset.
“It was one of those nights,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I cannot say a lot of terrifically positive things, except to give Prairie View tremendous credit. Understand: We could have lost, but we did not.”
That was due in part to a key contribution from 6-foot-9 junior reserve Ryan Childress, who matched a career high with 14 points and added eight rebounds in 19 minutes. Freshman Tyler Smith scored 15 points in just 21 minutes for the Vols.
The concerns for Tennessee, though, are clear after Lofton’s third straight game of shooting under 30 percent from the field. The reigning SEC player of the year is 6-for-28 (21.4 percent) on the season.
No less troubling was the brutal performance at the line by Ramar Smith, who was a 66 percent foul shooter as a freshman last season.
“Free-throw shooting is part mental,” Pearl said. “For him to get to the line 12 times is encouraging.”
Tennessee will take a break from the Legends Classic when it faces Middle Tennessee (1-2), which is having some struggles of its own, particularly on the defensive end. The Blue Raiders allowed Appalachian State to shoot 68 percent in a 84-79 loss Saturday.
“We don’t contest shots. We have no real grit and physicalness. We can’t guard around the goal at all,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. “We couldn’t stop anyone.”
Middle Tennessee has lost five straight to the Vols. The teams opened last season against each other, with Tennessee winning 83-52 in Knoxville. The Blue Raiders went on to post a 15-17 record and finished fourth in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division.
Their top two scorers from that team, guard Kevin Kanaskie and forward Desmond Yates, are back, and freshman Josh Sain figures to get more playing time, considering he’s scored 20 points in 22 minutes. Middle Tennessee, however, suffered a key loss when junior guard Calvin O’Neil tore his ACL in the season opener.
After Tuesday’s contest, Tennessee travels to Newark, N.J., for the semifinals of the Legends Classic against West Virginia on Friday.