Tennessee will fondly remember its previous win for years to come, but coach Bruce Pearl and his players know it won’t mean much in the short term if they fall flat in Thursday night’s SEC opener.
After shocking the nation’s top-ranked team, the No. 9 Volunteers will try to avoid a letdown against visiting Auburn.
Tyler Smith’s dismissal and the indefinite suspensions of three other players have left Tennessee (12-2) with just six scholarship athletes and three walk-ons.
Smith, who was averaging 11.7 points and a team-high 3.7 assists, was one of four players arrested on misdemeanor gun and drug charges on New Year’s Day. Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams are expected to be arraigned Thursday morning along with Smith.
Despite the short-handed roster and two starters in early foul trouble, the Volunteers pulled off a remarkable 76-68 upset of No. 1 Kansas at home Sunday.
Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince spent more than half the game on the bench, but Tennessee endured with a number of contributors. Along with Scotty Hopson’s team-leading 17 points, Bobby Maze scored a season-high 16 and Renaldo Woolridge matched a career best with 14. Walk-on Skylar McBee hit a pivotal 3-pointer with less than a minute remaining.
“It’s pretty amazing what chemistry can do when guys put their minds to something and know their backs are up against the wall a little bit and they rally, and they don’t quit and they believe in themselves,” Pearl said.
Pearl has focused this week on his program’s trend of poor performances following important wins.
After their previous upset of a top-ranked team in February 2008, the Volunteers lost at Vanderbilt. Tennessee clinched the SEC East Division title last season with wins at South Carolina and Florida, but fell to Alabama in the regular-season finale.
“I don’t think the Kansas win means as much if Auburn comes in and beats us Thursday,” McBee said. “We definitely have to get back to work and keep this same mentality that we have to stay together and be a family and work as hard as possible.”
To emphasize that point, Pearl planned to show the tape of last season’s 78-77 defeat at Auburn on Monday.
“We got whooped, and our guys will hear about that,” said Pearl, whose team knocked off the Tigers 94-85 in the SEC tournament semifinals March 14.
Auburn (9-7, 0-1) hasn’t fared well in recent trips to Thompson-Boling Arena, losing five in a row there - the past two to ranked Volunteers teams. Tennessee is 8-0 at home this season.
The Tigers are trying to bounce back from having their season-high four-game win streak snapped in Saturday’s 80-71 loss to visiting South Carolina. Brendon Knox had a career-high 22 points off the bench in Auburn’s conference opener.
The center has averaged 15.6 points over the last five games, more than six above his season mark (9.3). Fellow senior and leading scorer DeWayne Reed (15.9 ppg) has averaged 18.3 points and 6.7 assists in the past three contests.
Tennessee leads the series 68-37, but the teams have split their past eight meetings. The Volunteers hold a 42-7 advantage in Knoxville, winning 12 of 14 at Thompson-Boling.