It didn’t take Tennessee long to face some difficult tests, and the Volunteers failed their most recent one.
Coach Bruce Pearl is hoping his team’s next game won’t be quite as tough.
Pearl will again look for coaching win No. 400, while the 10th-ranked Vols seek their 35th straight home victory on Wednesday when North Carolina-Asheville visits Knoxville on the heels of a 68-point loss to the nation’s top-ranked team.
Tennessee (5-1) navigated a challenging field to reach the championship game of the Old Spice Classic last week in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., earning tough wins over Siena and then-No. 21 Georgetown.
The Vols’ run ended against Gonzaga, which moved to No. 5 in the nation after beating Tennessee 83-74 on Sunday. Preseason SEC player of the year Tyler Smith had 17 points to lead the Vols, who held a 50-26 edge on the boards but allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 51.9 percent from the field, including 11-of-20 from 3-point range.
“We didn’t defend well,” said Pearl, who owns a career record of 399-109 and is 82-25 with the Vols. “There’s a difference between playing hard and playing effectively.”
After Tennessee’s first four opponents - all mid-majors - shot a combined 38.5 percent from the field, the last two have each made more than half of their shots, with ranked squads from Georgetown and Gonzaga hitting 53-of-101 (52.5) from the floor.
Not only does UNC-Asheville (3-3) seem unlikely to repeat that feat after shooting 26.5 percent in a 116-48 loss at No. 1 North Carolina on Sunday, but Tennessee has won a school-record 34 straight games at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols have also beaten UNC-Asheville in each of the programs’ first five meetings, including 86-73 last Dec. 19.
The Bulldogs had even less success against North Carolina last weekend. The Tar Heels were without star Tyler Hansbrough, but still opened up a 53-19 halftime lead en route to their most lopsided victory under coach Roy Williams.
UNC-Asheville didn’t have a player score in double digits, losing a third straight game - all on the road - after opening the season with three straight home wins. The Bulldogs have lost seven of eight on the road dating to last season.
Against North Carolina, they had 25 turnovers, while leading scorer Reid Augst was held to eight points on 3-of-12 shooting. Augst also missed all three of his 3-point attempts, making him 0-for-9 from beyond the arc during the losing streak.
“Hopefully, this will be a great learning experience for us,” UNC-Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach told his school’s official Web site. “We’re better than we showed tonight. North Carolina is a great team but we helped them a little too much.”
UNC-Asheville won a share of the Big South regular-season title in 2007-08, going 23-10 overall, but the Bulldogs lost top scorers Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland to graduation, while 7-foot-7 center Kenny George remains out with a potentially career-ending foot injury.