Another loss to Ohio State would not be nearly as heartbreaking as the one Tennessee endured in the NCAA tournament, though it would still be pretty disappointing.
In a rematch of one of last season’s most memorable games, the sixth-ranked Volunteers seek a measure of revenge against the Buckeyes on Saturday in Knoxville.
It appeared Tennessee would bring an abrupt end to top-seeded Ohio State’s NCAA tournament run in the regional semifinals last season, taking a 17-point lead at halftime. However, the Buckeyes rallied to win 85-84 after Volunteers guard Ramar Smith had his potential game-winning shot blocked by Greg Oden as time expired.
Tennessee surely must be thankful Oden ended up leaving for the NBA. He also was a huge factor in another close game between the teams at Columbus during the 2006-07 regular season, finishing with 24 points and 15 rebounds in Ohio State’s 68-66 victory.
This time, it’s the Vols (15-1) who are clearly favored to win, playing at home and riding a 10-game win streak which is their longest since winning 11 in a row to open the 1999-2000 season. Tennessee, off to its best start since opening 16-1 in 2000-01, has never won in four meetings with the Buckeyes.
Ohio State (12-5), coming off back-to-back defeats, already has surpassed its total number of losses from all of last season when it finished 35-4 and reached the national title game.
This visit does not come at an ideal time for the Buckeyes, who will be playing their third road game in a week and second straight versus a ranked opponent. They lost 66-60 at No. 11 Michigan State on Tuesday.
“I can’t change it. It’s one of those games where you’ve got to go down and play it,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “It’s always good every now and then to play a game like this out of the Big Ten season, but now that we’ve gone to 18 (conference) games, I’m not sold it’s the best place.”
The Vols, meanwhile, are coming off a much more impressive performance, easily defeating No. 16 Vanderbilt 80-60 on Thursday.
Tennessee scored 30 points off 22 Vanderbilt turnovers, and held the hot-shooting Commodores to their lowest field-goal percentage of the season (36.8).
Wayne Chism led the Volunteers with 18 points and a career-high 18 rebounds.
“I think Chism had more rebounds tonight than he did during the entire month of December,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. Chism totaled 18 rebounds last month.
The Volunteers could get an additional boost Saturday with the likely return of Duke Crews.
The sophomore forward has been cleared to play after being sidelined since Dec. 4 due to a heart condition. Crews, who led Tennessee last season in field-goal percentage (51.8) and blocked shots (32), is averaging 6.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in eight games.
“More than anything, we are pleased that Duke is able to return,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “We will try to get him up to speed as quickly as possible while keeping in mind that he has had no activity for more than a month.”
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are looking to avoid losing three in a row for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
Ohio State, though, may not be feeling too bad about itself following its comeback attempt on Tuesday in front of a hostile Michigan State crowd. The Buckeyes trailed by as many as 21 points, but rallied to within three after halftime only to come up short.
“We have a lot of pride. These guys will never give up,” said Jamar Butler, who had 21 points. “We’ll keep battling, regardless of the score.”
Butler also had seven assists and was the only Buckeye to finish with more than eight points, raising his team-leading scoring average to 15.1 per game. The senior guard also scored 26 points in a 75-68 loss at Purdue on Sunday.
“He’s the only one that has been in these battles,” Matta said. “None of this is new to him, like it is to the other guys. But we do need other guys to step up and play to their ability.”