Bruce Pearl on USC
The key to Tuesday's game between Tennessee and Southern California isn't much of a mystery.
"They're a team that's going to back off us,'' Vols coach Bruce Pearl said Monday, "and force us to take those three balls, which we've struggled with tremendously.''
Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill, who has surely noted UT is 2-of-27 shooting beyond the 3-point line over its past three halves, confirms that's the plan.
"Yeah, we're gonna do that,'' said O'Neill, who typically clogs the lane with a sagging man-to-man defense. "And they'll have to be playing with a huge sense of urgency. They lost two games they probably feel they should have won.''
The 19th-ranked Vols (7-2) tip off against Southern Cal (6-5) at Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: SportSouth and MyVLT, 7 p.m.).
It's a game between two teams seemingly moving in opposite directions.
UT has lost some luster after back-to-back losses to unheralded Oakland (89-82) and Charlotte (49-48) over the past week.
Southern Cal, meanwhile, handled No. 18 Texas 74-56 two weeks ago and nearly knocked off No. 3 Kansas before falling 70-68 on Saturday.
"Obviously, given everything thats happened with (USC), you know the game has an edge with our fans,'' Pearl said. "There are a lot of things about USC that don't sit right with our fans.''
O'Neill said during the summer he was going to bring Kiffin to tonight's game, saying they would need to be outfitted in Kevlar suits. He added Monday he hopes Kiffin makes a surprise entry tonight.
O'Neill is that confident in how his team is playing.
"I told our guys, we're five points away from being 9-2,'' said O'Neill, who coached the Vols from 1994-97. "Until Jio (Fontan) came back, we couldn't compete the way we want to compete.''
Fontan, a 6-foot, 175-pound transfer, made the Atlantic 10's All-Rookie team at Fordham in 2009 and scored 15 points in the near-miss at Kansas.
Maurice Jones is Southern Cal's point guard, and Pearl said it will be a challenge for UT point guards Melvin Goins and Trae Golden to stay in front of the 5-7 freshman.
But the ultimate test for the Vols will come in the paint, where the Trojans dominated UT last season with a pair of 6-10 Goliaths.
Alex Stepheson (6-10, 250) was a McDonald's All-American in high school who transferred to Southern Cal after starting his career at North Carolina. Nikola Vucevic (6-10, 260) averages team-highs in scoring (16.2 points) and rebounds (10.4).
"The only reason (USC) is not more high scoring is they like to control tempo, and Kevin has got so much confidence in his half-court offense and half-court defense, that he doesn't want to risk the turnovers,'' Pearl said. "(O'Neill) knows that if he gets all five guys back on defense, it's hard to score on them.
"Transition is the best way we score, and its hard to get transition baskets on them because they'll send two guys to the offensive boards, and they get back very well,'' he said. "They play precisely, defensively, the way we've struggled to win...the last couple of years.''
Pearl's match up difficulties with O'Neill were on display last season in Southern Cal's 77-55 win in Los Angeles.
The Vols were 2-of-22 shooting beyond the 3-point line in the loss.
"That game was over in about 10 minutes,'' UT center Brian Williams said. "The focus this year is way different, especially coming off two losses. This would be a slide that we definitely don't need to take.''
Williams said the Vols - like any other team - need to make shots to win games.
"We've been 2-for-27 shooting the three; I believe an NBA team would lost to a college team shooting 2-for-27,'' Williams said. "Against Pittsburgh and Villanova we played good offensive and defensive basketball, and if we showed if we put it together we can beat anyone.
"If we don't, we can lose to anyone.''