Tennessee hasn’t endured a four-game losing streak in five-plus seasons under coach Bruce Pearl. Even avoiding that fate may not be enough for them to keep a spot among the nation’s elite.
The No. 19 Volunteers likely have their status in the AP poll on the line Thursday night when they try to halt their slide by beating Belmont again at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee (7-3) was ranked seventh last week following an impressive 83-76 win over then-No. 3 Pittsburgh on Dec. 11.
The Volunteers have failed to build on that, losing three in a row to unranked opponents to tumble toward the bottom of the Top 25. Another defeat would give them their first four-game losing streak since Jan. 22-Feb. 2, 2005, the season prior to Pearl’s hiring.
“They’ve got to find a way to clear their heads,” Pearl said of his players.
Tennessee clearly didn’t accomplish that Tuesday, committing 20 turnovers to lose 65-64 to Southern California while struggling in the waning seconds. Guard Cameron Tatum couldn’t move the ball up court against the press and called a timeout with 3.5 seconds left, but Tobias Harris missed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer on the ensuing in-bounds.
“It’s a little out of sync right now,” Tatum said. “We just have to get back together, everything back as a unit to get things flowing. We’ve just got to get back to understanding everybody’s roles and everybody’s position and getting it all back intact together.”
Scotty Hopson, the team leader with 15.3 points per game, is having major struggles over the last three games. The junior guard had eight points Tuesday and is averaging 9.3 on 25.8 percent shooting - 1 for 10 from 3-point range - during the slide.
Hopson, who had a career-high 27 points against Pitt, could be in for a better performance against Nashville-based Belmont (9-2). He scored a team-high 18 points in an 85-76 win over the Bruins on Nov. 16 as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Harris and Tatum added 16 and 14 points, respectively.
Tennessee has won all three meetings with Belmont, but just by an average of 6.6 points.
The Bruins may be relishing the chance at knocking the Volunteers from the Top 25 as a measure of revenge for their season-opening loss at Knoxville.
Ian Clark will likely play a role in a potential upset of the Volunteers after scoring 18 points against them last month. The sophomore guard leads the Bruins with 12.5 points per game.
Some support from Mick Hedgepeth could also go a long way in Belmont matching its season-high five-game winning streak. The junior forward-center missed all six of his shots and scored a season-low three points Monday, but had 10 points and five rebounds at Tennessee.