Tennessee began a string of four straight home games in turmoil after four of its players were suspended or dismissed following a New Year’s Day run-in with police.
The ninth-ranked Volunteers, though, can finish the homestand looking stronger than ever.
Coach Bruce Pearl’s team will try to follow up a blowout win in its SEC opener when it faces No. 21 Mississippi on Saturday.
Starting forward Tyler Smith was dismissed from the team after his involvement in the traffic stop, which produced gun, drug and alcohol charges and suspensions for Smith and Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins.
The Vols (13-2, 1-0) have not been slowed by the controversy. They began the homestand with a lopsided win over Charlotte and beat then-No. 1 Kansas 76-68 on Sunday before a 81-55 victory over Auburn on Thursday night.
Tennessee shot a season-best 60.8 percent from the field against the Tigers, turning a one-point halftime lead into an easy win thanks to a 43-18 edge in scoring in the second half.
“We took their hit and we kept going,” said senior center Wayne Chism, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double since the season opener against Austin Peay on Nov. 13. “I said, ‘Let’s pick it up.’ So we picked it up, got a couple of stops, a couple of big rebounds, made a couple of big shots … and we ran on from there.”
Sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge had eight points and seven rebounds and is averaging 10.7 points and 7.3 boards in three games since stepping into the starting lineup in place of Smith.
Senior guard Bobby Maze has also stepped up, scoring 14 points and adding a season-high nine assists against Auburn. Maze’s previous season best came against Kansas, when he had eight assists to go with a season-high 16 points.
“Maze is comfortable with the ball in his hands. He’s comfortable with the clock winding down,” Pearl said. “He’s comfortable off the bounce - nine assists, one turnover. This is back-to-back great games.”
The Vols have won five straight, but Mississippi could present one of the biggest challenges for Tennessee in the conference. Aside from these two teams, No. 2 Kentucky is the only SEC squad in the Top 25.
Ole Miss (13-3, 1-1) earned its ranking with a strong season out of conference, with the only two losses coming against top-10 foes Villanova and West Virginia. The Rebels, though, are still looking for a breakout performance in SEC play after losing 80-75 at home to Mississippi State last Saturday and needing a dramatic late basket to secure an 80-76 win at Georgia on Wednesday night.
Eniel Polynice bounced an inbounds pass off an opponent’s back in the final minute and laid it in to help clinch the victory over the Bulldogs.
“You just use your instincts and take a chance,” Polynice said. “Basketball is about taking chances. You do what you have to and look back with no regrets.”
With 10 points, Polynice was among four Ole Miss players who scored in double figures and is one of the five averaging at least 10.0 points. Junior Chris Warren leads the way with 16.4 per game as the fast-paced Rebels are tops in the SEC with 83.4 points a contest.
Sophomore Terrico White, averaging 16.2 points, led the Rebels with 21 points and six assists in an 81-65 win over Tennessee on Feb. 18 in Oxford. The home team has won the last six meetings in the series.