If you’re a Tennessee basketball fan, you’ve gotta like it.
So says UT coach Bruce Pearl, whose 14th-ranked team shot out of the gate with a surprisingly easy season-opening 114-75 victory over Chattanooga on Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“You have to like the balance. You have to like the chemistry,” said Pearl, whose young Vols set a school record with 32 assists. “Our pressure was disruptive, and we obviously shared the ball tremendously with 32 assists on 43 baskets.”
Tennessee’s “Controlled Chaos’’ press and trap forced the Mocs into 24 turnovers and countless layups and dunks, much to the delight of the sellout crowd of 21,864.
It was the Vols’ 33rd-consecutive win at home, the third-longest active win streak nationally. It also tied the UT record for consecutive home wins that was set in 1968.
“When everybody does their job, it looks that pretty,’’ said junior wing J.P. Prince, who had 14 points and five assists in the 17 minutes he played.
Tyler Smith led the Vols in scoring with 21 points. Cameron Tatum added 19 and Scotty Hopson had 17. Wayne Chism and Bobby Maze each recorded double-doubles; Chism with 14 points and 13 rebounds and Maze with 12 points and 10 assists.
But it was Prince, the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year last year, who ignited the Vols’ 2008-09 season after entering the game 1½ minutes into play.
The score was 1-1. UT had missed its first three shots and turned the ball over twice before Prince came into the game and provided a spark, dunking 23 seconds after entering.
Prince went on to score six of the Vols’ next eight points as UT went on a 17-2 run to take a 24-10 lead at the 12:10 mark.
Scotty Hopson capped the offensive burst with a 3-pointer, his first official points as a Vol.
“Making that big shot calmed me down,’’ said Hopson, who finished 7-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-6 beyond the 3-point arc with a high-arcing touch.
By halftime, UT’s lead swelled to 60-37.
But the Vols weren’t done.
Smith, the SEC’s preseason player of the year, still had something to prove after connecting on just 2 of 6 shots in the first half.
Smith started the final 20 minutes on a rampage, scoring seven of UT’s first nine points as the Vols opened the second half on a 12-0 run.
“That was the first game we won the second half,” said Pearl, referring to UT’s two exhibition victories. “We did challenge them (at halftime) to win the second half, and I thought our starters got off to a good start.’’
Chattanooga coach John Shulman was certainly impressed.
“I made a comment that maybe only North Carolina had better talent, and I may have to stick with that comment,’’ said Shulman, whose Mocs are preseason favorites in the North Division of the Southern Conference. “They have length, they play hard, they are talented (and) shoot it.
“They are as talented — I don’t know if I can put them with that Florida team we played when they were defending national champions — but they are a heckuva lot deeper than that team.’’
Still, Pearl — whose team has yet to get junior wing Josh Tabb back from an academic suspension — isn’t ready to accept such accolades.
“We’ll see if I can get them back down to reality,” Pearl said. “We need to understand we’re a team that needs to get better.”
The Vols return to action at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Thompson-Boling arena against UT Martin.