Any coach will tell you every game presents a different set of challenges. That's clearly the case tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena as Tennessee and Ole Miss get their SEC men's basketball seasons off to a rip-roaring start.
No. 8 Tennessee (12-1), the preseason pick to win the SEC, and No. 16 Ole Miss (13-0) join unbeaten Vanderbilt as the league's three most productive programs heading into the new year.
But when the Vols and Rebels collide at 8 p.m. (TV: WVLT), it's a whole new ball game. Put another way, a whole new set of problems.
"We played very hard against them but we were absolutely manhandled.''
That's UT coach Bruce Pearl recalling an 83-69 loss at Ole Miss last winter. True, the Vols were without injured Chris Lofton, but he wouldn't have been much help battling the big, bruising Rebels on the boards.
It's a valid issue to revisit tonight.
Tennessee has been outrebounded in eight of its 13 games, including the past five. And now, Ole Miss, possibly the best rebounding team UT has faced.
Led by bookends Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams, the Rebels haven't been outrebounded in a game yet and lead the SEC in rebounding margin.
"The league is filled with big guys,'' said UT forward Tyler Smith, anticipating his SEC debut. "You've got guards who are six-seven, six-eight.
"These last few days rebounding is what we've been preaching. (Monday) we got outrebounded by the scout team so he made us run.''
While Pearl worries about the big guys, the Rebels' Andy Kennedy's anxiety comes in a smaller package.
Chris Warren, a 5-foot-11 freshman point guard, has been a sensational addition to the Rebels, averaging 15.2 points 5.69 assists.
"He's as good a freshman point guard as I've seen in college basketball this year,'' said Pearl.
That said, Ole Miss has played only one true road game, before an announced crowd of 5,574 at Central Florida.
"From day one,'' said Kennedy, "we've given him the keys to the car, so to speak.
"He's really unflappable, but I'm anxious to see how he responds to 21,000 yelling at him.''
And with Tennessee pressing him, Kennedy might add. The Vols rank second in the nation in steals at 12.2 per game and harass opponents into 22.3 turnovers per game.
Which, in Pearl's mind, spawns a theory about UT's rebounding deficit.
Producing turnovers leads to more offensive possessions and more shots. UT, in fact, leads the SEC in shots per game.
"Therefore we give the defense more opportunities to rebound the ball,'' Pearl said.
"That's not the problem. I'm worried more about teams getting double-digit offensive rebounds, where we play great defense and then give them a second chance.
"That's one of the things Ole Miss does really well.''
If the Vols need help on the boards tonight it could come from the perimeter. JaJuan Smith notes that his rebounding has slipped from 4.5 a game last year to 2.3 this season.
"I'm trying to be hard on myself,'' Smith said. "I've been telling the bigs I've got to come down there and get involved with you all and that can take some pressure off.''
As for whatever pressure early success brings to the conference season, Pearl and Kennedy are harmonizing:
Thanks, but no thanks.
"We have not talked one time about where we were picked,'' Pearl said. "We're not the defending champion; Florida is.''
The Rebels were picked to finish last in the SEC West. However, the best start in school history recasts them in the unexpected role as favorites.
"I take that just like I did when we were predicted sixth,'' said Kennedy.
"We've got a lot of work to do.''
Notebook: UT ranks No. 1 nationally in assists per game (20.9) and assist/turnover ratio (272/162). ... Pearl attended LSU's national-championship victory over Ohio State on Monday night in New Orleans with Jim Haslam and UT baseball coach Todd Raleigh. ... The team gathered at Pearl's house Tuesday night to watch Florida and Alabama open the SEC season on ESPN. ... J.P. Prince's father, John, was an assistant coach at Ole Miss 1980-82.
Inside Look: Tonight at 10, SportSouth broadcasts "Inside the Orange," a 60-minute Vol Network production offering an inside look at the men's and women's basketball programs. The show will be re-broadcast Friday and Saturday at 6 p.m.
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276.