What: Alabama (12-8) vs. Tennessee (17-2)
Where: Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Time/TV: 8 p.m. CST/ESPN
Series record: Alabama leads 71-62.
Tennessee's Bruce Pearl has steadily built one of the league's strongest programs with outstanding defensive intensity and an offense that pushes the floor consistently. Among the Southeastern Conference's more animated skippers, he is now in his third season with UT. His overall career record is an imressive 380-105, including a 63-21 mark with the Volunteers. Pearl has earned national Coach of the Year honors from The Sporting News during his UT tenure as well. He is well on his way to his third NCAA tournament appearance in as many years at Tennessee. Pearl came to UT from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he went to the NCAA tournament twice in four years.
The Volunteers went 24-11, capped by an impressive NCAA tournament run. Tennessee posted impressive non-conference wins over the likes of Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas before embarking on a 10-6 run through conference play. After a disappointing showing in the SEC Tournament (an overtime loss to LSU in its tourney opener), Tennessee reached the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tourney. The Vols posted victories over Long Beach State and Virginia before a season-ending, 85-84 loss to Ohio State.
Last Five Games
Georgia - W, 85-69
@ Kentucky - L, 72-66
Ohio State - W, 74-69
Vanderbilt - W, 80-60
@ South Carolina - W, 80-56
Did You Know?
* Tennessee has lost 16 of its last 17 games at Coleman Coliseum.
* UT's star guard, Chris Lofton, has cracked the NCAA's career top 10 list for 3-pointers made (374).
* The Volunteers rank No.1 in the Southeastern Conference in multiple categories, including scoring (84.5), turnover margin (+7.9), 3-pointers per game (9.4) and 3-point defense (.282).
All Eyes On
G Chris Lofton (6-2, 200) - The league's most feared sharpshooter enters play in Tuscaloosa on a hot streak, coming off a season-high 27 points against Georgia, preceded by a 22-point effort against Kentucky. With a team-high average of 14.5 points per game, guarding Lofton will be critical to Alabama's hopes of staying close with the heavily favored Vols. He has converted 16 of his last 33 3-pointers going back three games. Lofton is also among the league's top free-throw shooters (.831).
Scouting the Volunteers
F Tyler Smith (6-7, 215) - Smith gives UT an athletic scoring presence inside (13.1 ppg), and a deft passer for a big guy (3.7 apg).
F Wayne Chism (6-9, 242) - Counted on heavily for rebounding (team-high 6.0 rpg), Chism averages 8.0 points and provides solid defense in the paint.
G JaJuan Smith (6-2, 195) - At 13.9 points per game, Smith teamed with Lofton to be the SEC's top scoring tandem a year ago. He hasn't been as effective of late, scoring seven against Kentucky, then six in a season-low 17 minutes against Georgia.
G Ramar Smith (6-2, 200) - Smith averages 8.9 points per game and converts more than half his field goal attempts (.508), which is very rare for a guard.
G J.P.Prince (6-7, 205) - Prince, a transfer from Arizona, gives the Vols scoring punch off the bench (10.1 ppg) and more size at guard than the starters provide.
G Jordan Howell (6-3, 190) - The Auburn (Ala.) native is a sharpshooter off the UT bench, shooting .427 (32 of 75) from 3-point range.
Analysis and Prediction
Tennessee looks to move to 5-1 in SEC play while Alabama will try to claw its way back from a 1-4 league mark. For home-court advantage to be of any benefit, the Crimson Tide must keep the game within close reach in the first half. A 10-point UT lead at intermission would go a long way toward removing the crowd factor.
Tennessee's press defense and its quickness at the guard spots looks to be a poor matchup for Alabama, which has struggled at times with turnovers. It will be a real test for freshman point guard Rico Pickett, although don't be surprised if UA coach Mark Gottfried sticks with the formula that worked against Auburn in bringing Pickett in off the bench. UT's Lofton will waste no time testing whoever UA gives him defensively, and will look to bust the 1-2-2 zone that was effective against Auburn.
Alabama can counter with a size edge at the guard spots, where Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley will have 3-4 inches on their defenders. For Gee, that means creating open looks from 2-point range instead of settling for too many 3-pointers.
Inside, Alabama needs a dominant effort from Richard Hendrix. If Chism is able to battle Hendrix to a draw, the game will turn more on transition points, which is exactly what the Crimson Tide doesn't want.
Prediction: Tennessee 86, Alabama 71.
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