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December 28, 2007

Pearl has Vols back on right track

MORE: Head-to-Head Breakdown

A blowout loss to Texas on Nov. 24 dropped preseason top-10 team Tennessee below the national radar.

The Vols (11-1), though, are climbing back into the clouds. They'll carry a six-game winning streak into Spokane, Wash., for Saturday's game with Gonzaga (9-3).

Bruce Pearl's team comes off a big victory at Xavier last Saturday, the kind of road test that impresses the NCAA Tournament selection committee in March. Now the Vols, who still have nonconference games with Ohio State and Memphis, test themselves again against a Bulldogs team that recently fell out of the top 25 and could use a "lasting-impression" game of its own.

Gonzaga's losses have come against Texas Tech, Washington State and Oklahoma. Its last game was the loss to the Sooners.

Here's a closer look at the Vols-Bulldogs matchup, which will be televised nationally on ESPN2 at 4 p.m. EST.

Game of the Week: No. 11 Tennessee (11-1) at Gonzaga (9-3)
Jordan Howell vs. Jeremy Pargo
EDGE: Gonzaga Howell, a 6-foot-3 senior, is a caretaker for the Vols' offense. He's not explosive (7.5 points per game), but he's tied for the team lead in assists and is an above-average 3-point shooter (43.4 percent). Pargo, a 6-2 junior, is the leading scorer (12.8 points) and assist man (5.8) for the Bulldogs. He can be explosive, as his 28 points in the loss to Oklahoma attest.
Chris Lofton vs. Micah Downs
EDGE: Tennessee Lofton, a 6-2 senior, was on everybody's All-American list. He's still the Vols' leading scorer (14.8 points per game), but his shooting touch has abandoned him. A career 47.5-percent shooter, he's hitting only 34.7 percent this season, and the Vols should be alarmed. Downs, a 6-8 junior, is a transfer from Kansas who leads the Bulldogs in rebounding (5.3). He has picked up his scoring over the past five games to push his season average to 10.7 points per game
JaJuan Smith vs. Matt Bouldin
EDGE: Tennessee Smith, a 6-2 senior, is Tennessee's third-leading scorer (14.1 points). He's the chief 3-point threat after Lofton, and he makes good decisions with the ball (2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio). Bouldin, a 6-5 sophomore, is second on the Bulldogs in scoring (12.5 points) and assists (2.3). He was ineffective against Oklahoma after missing the previous game with an ankle injury, but he can score effectively when healthy.
Wayne Chism vs. David Pendergraft
EDGE: Tennessee Chism, a 6-9 sophomore, is a decent post player who also can step outside and knock down shots from 15-18 feet. He averages 4.9 rebounds per game and is the Vols' leading shot-blocker. Pendergraft, a 6-6 senior, will be playing in his 111th game for the Bulldogs. He averages 4.9 rebounds per game, too, and he does a lot of the dirty work that doesn't show up in the box score.
Tyler Smith vs. Abdullahi Kuso
EDGE: Tennessee Smith, a 6-7 sophomore, is a transfer from Iowa. He does a little bit of everything well (13.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, tied for team lead in assists, leads team in steals) and is a steadying influence. Kuso, a 6-9 senior, averages 6.4 points and 4.2 rebounds. He has started every game this season, but only because 6-11 junior Josh Heytvelt has been sidelined after having surgery on his right foot in November.
EDGE: Tennessee The Vols are one of the deepest teams in the country. Eleven of their 12 scholarship players have scored in double-digits in a game this season, and the one who hasn't has scored nine twice. Arizona transfer J.P. Prince has been sensational for UT in his three games since becoming eligible (14.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 60.7 percent from the floor). The Bulldogs counter with Heytvelt, a top-notch big man when healthy, and freshman Austin Daye (11.8 points, 4.9 rebounds), a former Rivals.com five-star prospect.
EDGE: Tennessee Tennessee's Bruce Pearl has tinkered with his starting lineup and seems to have settled on Howell, Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Tyler Smith and Chism. He somehow has all 12 scholarship players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, and eight of them average at least 6.5 points. It's not an easy juggling act. Gonzaga's Mark Few has been riding out some key injuries, including Heytvelt, Bouldin and freshman guard Steven Gray (wrist). The Bulldogs have performed admirably without them.
This game would be more interesting if Heytvelt, who averaged 15.5 points and 7.7 rebounds last season, were 100 percent healthy. Tennessee is suspect on the inside and doesn't rebound well. But Heytvelt has played only one game, and he managed five points and one rebound against the Sooners. Simply put, Tennessee has too many weapons, and its defensive pressure will wear down Pargo and the Bulldogs.
Tennessee 79, Gonzaga 71

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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