Tennessee still hasn’t lost since its roster was rocked by the arrest of four players. Coach Bruce Pearl, meanwhile, hasn’t lost to Georgia since he arrived in Knoxville.
The eighth-ranked Volunteers go for an eighth straight win overall and an 11th consecutive victory over the Bulldogs as they visit Athens on Saturday.
A respectable start in non-conference play had Tennessee ranked 14th at the end of December, but the Vols’ season seemingly took a major hit when Tyler Smith and three other players were involved in a Jan. 1 traffic stop that produced gun and drug charges.
Smith was dismissed from the team and Brian Williams remains suspended, while Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins were reinstated last weekend but have not played.
Without those players, Tennessee has surged into the top 10 by extending its winning streak to a season-high seven, a stretch that includes a 76-68 victory over then-No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10.
The Vols (15-2, 3-0 SEC) won their conference road opener 63-56 over Alabama on Tuesday, their second straight game shooting under 40 percent. They trailed 25-24 after a sluggish first half but bounced back after the break, with senior center Wayne Chism scoring all 11 of his points in the final 7 minutes.
“I’ve had other Tennessee teams that after we played that poorly in the first half, we’d have been done but this team continues to defend,” Pearl said. “We showed some toughness and some fortitude.”
Strong defense has been a consistent theme for the Vols, who’ve held their last six opponents under 40 percent shooting. Within SEC play, they’re holding teams to 60.0 points and 34.3 percent shooting, leading the league in both categories.
Chism has provided a good chunk of the offense lately, scoring 26 points in a 71-69 overtime win over then-No. 21 Mississippi last Saturday.
Although guard Scotty Hopson led the Vols with 17 points against Alabama and freshman forward Kenny Hall chipped in with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double, Chism consistently got the ball late.
“When the game’s on the line, you go to Wayne,” Pearl said. “He was the best player on the floor and it showed.”
Chism has averaged 13.7 points and 8.0 rebounds in his last three games against Georgia. Tennessee has not lost to the Bulldogs in 10 meetings since falling 71-60 in Athens on Feb. 21, 2004, going 8-0 under Pearl.
Despite being winless in the SEC, Georgia (8-8, 0-3) may already be making progress under first-year coach Mark Fox.
The Bulldogs, who were 3-13 in conference play last season, have lost their first three games by an average of 5.0 points. They fell 76-68 at then-No. 3 Kentucky two weeks ago.
Georgia is 7-2 at home, beating then-No. 20 Georgia Tech 73-66 on Jan. 5.
The Bulldogs have not played since last Saturday, when they lost 72-69 at Mississippi State. Georgia held a 47-33 edge in rebounds, led by a career-high 15 from sophomore guard Travis Leslie, but blew a 13-point second-half lead.
Leading scorer Trey Thompkins had 18 points and is averaging 19.0 in his last four games.