So much for overlooking Auburn.
Tennessee led by as many as 31 points en route to an 89-70 victory over the Tigers Wednesday night before a crowd of 20,645 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The No. 2 Vols (24-2, 11-1 SEC) move on to play at No. 1-ranked Memphis on Saturday (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.). Memphis improved to 26-0 Wednesday with a 97-71 win at Tulane.
As for the Auburn Tigers (13-11, 3-8), they left Knoxville impressed by what they saw from the Vols.
“They’re better than anybody we’ve played,’’ Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. “Their explosiveness offensively is what separates them. They have so many different players that can go out and score 18, 19 or 20 points.’’
It was UT’s 30th consecutive win at home.
Sophomore point guard Ramar Smith became the sixth different player to lead the Vols in scoring this season, pouring in a season-high 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor and 6-of-7 shooting from the free throw line.
“It was just about finishing at the basket, that’s what it comes down to,’’ said Smith, who hadn’t scored in double figures since a Jan. 22 loss to Kentucky when he had 10. “It helps to score, but I’ve been doing other things to help my team win. It’s not all about scoring.’’
Senior Frank Tolbert scored a game-high 24 for the undermanned and out-sized Tigers, and fellow senior Quan Prowell had 21.
Tennessee’s Tyler Smith had 13 points and 13 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double, and seniors Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith scored 12 points apiece for the Vols.
“A lot of people thought we’d overlook them (Auburn),’’ JaJuan Smith said. “But we went down there last year and got punked. They hit us in the mouth.’’
This time, UT hit on all cylinders to avenge last season’s 83-80 loss.
The Vols used an 11-0 run to go up 31-15 on a Josh Tabb basket at the 7:53 mark of the first half, and the Tigers never got back within double figures.
“You could see that our team was ready to play,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We took our opponent very seriously, and we took care of business.’’
Pearl did so by using a business-as-usual approach in the days leading up to the game.
“I’m not going to be any different in our preparation for Memphis,’’ Pearl said. “It’s not going to be, ‘Coach is a little on edge for Memphis.’ Coach is always on edge. I don’t want them to see a different me.’’
And Pearl doesn’t want his players acting any differently, either.
After two Knoxville television stations had been ordered not to ask questions about Memphis this week, Pearl made it clear to the UT sports information staff that media was free to ask whatever questions they wanted. All players were made available each day and practices were open.
Dane Bradshaw, who played for the Vols last season, called the News Sentinel on Wednesday from Europe, where he’s playing professional basketball, and said it’s important the team stays loose.
“It’s amazing what’s going on and the hype around the Memphis game,’’ Bradshaw said. “The guys need to enjoy it as much as they can. The rivalry will always be there, but I’m not sure there will be another No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup with Memphis.’’
Lofton, who moved into sole possession of fifth place on the NCAA’s all-time 3-point list with 402, said he appreciates the challenge ahead.
“I’ve never played in a game like this before,’’ Lofton said. “I never thought it was going to be like this. We’re having fun with the way the team is playing.’’
Like Lofton, Tyler Smith is anxious for the Memphis game.
“We want to hurry up and get to that game,’’ he said. “It’s going to be fun, but if we win or lose, it won’t make or end our season.”