The only logical explanation for Tennessee's schizophrenic play so far this season is that the Vols perform best when they feel challenged.
How else can you make sense of their perfect 3-0 record against ranked teams and four losses against unranked foes, not to mention an exhibition defeat at the hands of the University of Indianapolis?
The latest example of this trend came Wednesday night against No. 21 Memphis when Tennessee charged out to a 25-point first-half lead and coasted to a resounding 104-84 victory. Granted Memphis isn't playing as well as some of the unranked competition that has upset the Vols, but the combination of the Tigers' gaudy 11-2 record and the rivalry between the two in-state foes was enough to inspire Tennessee anyway.
The victory reaffirms what Tennessee is capable of when they share the ball, defend with intensity and speed up the tempo. The Vols parlayed that formula into impressive early wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh, but they had fallen off of late, dropping four of six entering Wednesday night's game.
For Memphis, a 20-point drubbing at the hands of an in-state rival reinforces the myriad of concerns that have popped up during a flurry of recent close calls against inferior competition. The Tigers don't defend at all, they struggle on the glass against bigger teams and most of the time they look less like a team on offense and more like a collection of individual talents.
The priority for the Tigers in preparing for Tennessee had been improving their shoddy defense, yet the Vols scored 104 points and shot 53.7 percent, including 61.5 percent in the second half. Memphis also knew it needed to limit Tennessee to one shot per possession, yet the Vols out-rebounded the Tigers 41-30 and posted 19 second-chance points.
It was especially important for Tennessee to get this win entering SEC play because the Vols now lose coach Bruce Pearl to his eight-game suspension.
His parting advice to his assistants on game days should be simple: Make sure Tennessee respects its opponent. The better the Vols think their opponent is, the better they seem to play.