NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The Tennessee Volunteers know what it takes to turn the SEC East into at least a two-horse race with the Kentucky Wildcats.
They'll have to play fast like Kentucky, work quickly in transition like Kentucky, and show extreme athleticism like Kentucky.
In Tennessee's 75-54 win over Middle Tennessee State in Friday night's Sun Belt Classic at the Sommet Center, the Volunteers performed in all those aspects—just not consistently, and not well enough to challenge the Wildcats.
When Tennessee had a chance to put the game away early, they didn't. The Volunteers jumped out to a 10-point first half lead but allowed the Blue Raiders to cut the deficit inside double digits before the end of the half.
So in an arena less than half full, with a strong MTSU contingent on hand, Tennessee's intensity waned at times.
“It should never be turned off,” junior center Brian Williams said. “We've got 10 players that should be better than everybody in the country. Our first five aren't doing what they have to do out there to pick the slack up.”
There was talk of how Tennessee plays down to opponents—how the Volunteers hit another gear when they need to produce, pulling away on superior athleticism. Head Coach Bruce Pearl said that was part of the story against MTSU.
The Blue Raiders held a glimmer of hope down 44-34 with 14 minutes left, but MTSU trailed 60-42 at the under-eight-minute timeout. Pearl said Tennessee's full-court pressure started to pay off in what he called a “workman-like game.”
“We pressured them almost the whole game, and while it didn't turn them over, it just takes its toll,” Pearl said. “They didn't shoot well in the second half because of the way they were pressed and harassed.”
At times though, it was Tennessee that look harassed.
Standout sophomore guard Scotty Hopson scored a single point on 0-of-3 shooting, and senior forward Tyler Smith left the game with 10 minutes left, nursing a twisted ankle. In their place, senior guard J.P. Prince scored 17 points in only 22 minutes.
Prince said MTSU made a big effor to slow the game down, keeping the Volunteers out of rhythm and the Blue Raiders from running out of breath.
"Most teams don't want to run with us," Prince said. "Most teams want to slow it down...You can't blow somebody out every night."
But Tennessee didn't need a blowout—just an assertion of its dominance. It was there Friday night, but not for 40 minutes.
The Volunteers need points from Hopson on a big stage as much as Kentucky needs freshman guard John Wall. Instead, Hopson was nonexistent on offense, and signs of what's to come followed Pearl all the way out of the Sommet Center.
Pearl left the court with taunts of “get ready for John Wall” from the contingent of Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky, and MTSU fans on hand.
He didn't turn, didn't wave, and didn't flinch.
But Pearl had to restrain a big grin—one that's anticipating two February contests against Kentucky and Wall, and for stakes as high as the SEC Regular-Season crown.