A humbling loss sent Tennessee tumbling in the rankings. The Volunteers will now have to fend off a team on the rise if they don’t want to fall any further.
On Tuesday, the No. 11 Vols (5-1) host a North Carolina A&T squad that’s on a four-game winning streak and coming off a 96-93 road upset of DePaul on Saturday.
Tennessee is searching for answers after losing 97-78 to then-No. 15 Texas in the final of the StubHub! Legends Classic on Saturday. The Vols allowed the Longhorns to shoot 63.6 percent from the field and four Texas players scored more than 20 points.
“I just thought there were a lot of times where we lacked purpose, focus and didn’t play with the passion you need to play at the way we like to play,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.
Pearl’s team may have to rediscover its game quickly, as Texas A&M (4-2) got 40 points from Steven Rush in knocking off the Blue Demons. The 5-foot-11 senior guard went 10-of-17 on 3-pointers after coming into the game shooting 19.0 percent from beyond the arc.
“I kept telling people once Steven Rush gets going, look out,” Aggies coach Jerry Eaves told the school’s official Web site. “Steve’s a shooter. Shooters go through slumps. But you let him keep shooting because he’s too good a shooter to stay in a slump.”
Chris Lofton understands what Rush was going through. Tennessee’s star guard has finally started scoring, averaging 18.0 points over the last three games, but he’s shooting just 35.5 percent for the season - well below last season’s 47.9 percent clip.
He’s just one of several key players struggling offensively for the Vols. Despite averaging 88.5 points on the season, Tennessee shot below 40 percent against Texas and West Virginia last weekend.
Sophomore Tyler Smith went 4-of-14 against Texas, while leading scorer JaJuan Smith was 7-of-21 over the two games.
“Offensively, I would say we are way behind where I would like us to be, partly because we have spent so much time on defense, partly because some guys are playing new roles,” Pearl said. “I think with the number of guys we are playing - our rotation is at 10 guys - the cohesiveness is not there.”
The Vols barely snuck past the Mountaineers, winning 74-72 before losing to Texas. Tennessee has only looked dominant in blowout victories over Division II Arkansas-Monticello and Middle Tennessee.
Tennessee has, however, won 20 straight home games.
The Vols have never faced North Carolina A&T, which won just one game in 2002-03 but has improved each season in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference under Eaves, its fifth-year coach. The Aggies finished 10-8 in the MEAC last season, and with seven seniors on the current roster, were picked to finish third this season.
“That’s a team that’s going to the NCAA tournament,” said Pearl, whose team is beginning a seven-game stretch against mid-major opponents before opening its SEC schedule.