Oakland, Mich.-Tennessee Preview
The off-court issues surrounding No. 7 Tennessee and coach Bruce Pearl seem like an afterthought given the Volunteers' performance to start the season.
The Volunteers look for their first 8-0 start in 10 years Tuesday night when they host Summit League favorite Oakland, Mich., which has shown it can play tough against nationally-ranked opponents.
Seemingly ignoring the NCAA's investigation into Pearl's recruiting violations and his impending eight-game suspension from SEC play once it starts next month, Tennessee (7-0) is the lone remaining unbeaten team in the conference.
"I've got a chip on my shoulder and so do they,'' Pearl said. "When we get beat it will be because somebody outplays us and not because we're not ready for them.''
The Vols were more than prepared for their visit to then-No. 3 Pittsburgh on Saturday, winning 83-76. It was the second win over a Top 10 opponent this season for Tennessee, which beat then-No. 7 Villanova 78-68 on Nov. 26.
"If you're successful on the court, nothing really matters,'' said senior center Brian Williams, who leads the team with 7.6 rebounds per game. "I think the attention has been coming off all the coaches because we've been winning games. That's what it's all about.''
Junior guard Scotty Hopson, named SEC player of the week after scoring a career-high 27 points against the Panthers, said the Vols have yet to reach their potential.
"I think this team has not even reached its boiling point of how far we can get and how good we can be," Hopson said. "We want to play our best basketball in March and right now we're just focusing on getting better. It's a process.''
The Golden Grizzlies (5-5) hope a rigorous schedule prepares them for a potential second straight NCAA tournament appearance. The Volunteers will be their fourth ranked opponent.
Oakland pushed then-No. 7 Michigan State to its limit Saturday, ultimately falling 77-76 to the Spartans. NBA prospect Keith Benson had 17 points and 12 rebounds in front of the contingent of scouts in attendance.
The Golden Grizzlies were done in by 14 turnovers and their 11-for-22 performance from the free-throw line.
Oakland led then-No. 16 Illinois at halftime Dec. 8 before falling 74-63, and trailed by only four through 20 minutes at then-No. 14 Purdue in an 82-67 loss Nov. 21.
"It's disappointing to come this close and to miss so many free throws and have so many turnovers,'' Benson said. "But now we know we can compete with any team in the nation.''
The Golden Grizzlies have lost 26 of 27 games against ranked opponents since 1998. Oakland beat then-No. 23 Oregon 68-62 on Dec. 22, 2007.
Tennessee is 40-1 in non-conference home games since 2005, losing to Gonzaga 89-79 in overtime Jan. 7, 2009.