LEXINGTON, Ky. - Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl revealed the playing status of senior post Wayne Chism will be a "game-time decision" after Chism sat out Friday night's walkthrough at Rupp Arena with a sprained ankle.
As if the challenge of facing No. 3-ranked Kentucky tonight (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.) wasn't already difficult enough for the 12th-ranked Vols.
The Wildcats (23-1, 8-1 SEC) opened as an 8 1/2-point favorite over Tennessee (18-5, 6-3) Friday afternoon in Las Vegas.
Chism, who averages 13.1 points and seven rebounds, suffered the ankle injury in Tuesday night's 90-71 loss at Vanderbilt.
"We didn't even know he did it during the game,'' Pearl said. "He took the tape off (his ankles) and it ballooned up on him.''
The Vols took Wednesday off, and Chism was not able to practice Thursday or Friday.
With Chism sidelined or limited, the Wildcats' advantage along the front line will be even more glaring.
Kentucky leads the nation with a plus-10.2 rebounding margin, and with an average height of 6-foot-7, the Wildcats are the tallest team in the country.
Freshman post DeMarcus Cousins (6-11, 260 pounds) leads the SEC and is fifth in the nation with 15 double-doubles. Junior Patrick Patterson (6-9, 235) leads the SEC and is fifth in the nation with a .586 field-goal percentage.
"We're just going to have to keep going at them,'' Pearl said. "Kenny Hall is giving away a lot of size, but he'll battle. He'll try to put his body between them and the ball and rebound and use his quickness to beat them to spots.''
Hall, a 6-8, 220-pound freshman, said he played against Cousins on the AAU circuit.
"We went at each other, and I respect what he's doing now,'' Hall said. "Am I intimidated? That's not a word I use. Ever.
"We know we had a tough loss at Vandy, and we know people are expecting us to lie down, but that's not going to be the case.''
Tennessee junior Brian Williams figures to see action for only the second time since serving a nine-game suspension dating back to a well-documented Jan. 1 traffic stop. Williams (6-10, 278) played just two minutes against Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
UT legend Bernard King tried to do his part to inspire the Vols, telling them after Thursday's practice that "We don't lose to Kentucky.''
King's comment got back to the Wildcats' players, according to Kentucky coach John Calipari.
"They asked, 'who is Bernard King?' What number is Bernard King?' '' Calipari told the Lexington Herald-Leader Friday. "He doesn't play for them now; they don't know ... They're like, 'I'm guarding him.' ''
The Kentucky coach's attempt at humor was lost on Pearl, who has been focused on the task at hand in the days leading up to today's battle.
"Here's the deal: you turn it over against them, and you're going to be on SportsCenter,'' Pearl said. "They've got four players ranked in the NBA mock drafts anywhere from one to 20.
"Look at their roster and look at their bench. The guys sitting on their bench beat us twice last year.''
Calipari has made sure his Wildcats are taking the short-handed Vols seriously, too.
"They beat the No. 1 team (Kansas), and as a matter of fact, beat them good,'' Calipari said. "The last time I was highly ranked, he (Pearl) brought a team into Memphis (2008) and beat us.''
Pearl said this Kentucky team is more talented than Calipari's 2008 Tigers, a team that went on to play in the national championship game.
Freshman point guard John Wall, widely considered the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, is just as talented as former Memphis star Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, Pearl said.
In fact, these Wildcats have more talent than the Florida teams that won back-to-back national championships earlier this decade, according to Pearl.
"We have got to understand, we're not just facing a talented Kentucky team, but a Kentucky team that will bring elevated play with ESPN GameDay on hand,'' Pearl said. "We're the highest ranked conference team they've played, and we've finished ahead of them four straight years in the SEC.
"They'll be doing all the little things in this type of game.''
Pearl said Kentucky's only potential weakness is it has at times been inconsistent shooting from the perimeter.
"But the last three games, they've shot the ball well at home, and that's a cause for concern,'' Pearl said. "The challenge is definitely formidable.''
Pearl said the Vols can only focus on what they do, and attempt to do it well.
"I'm not worried about getting our guys up to play, because this event speaks for itself,'' he said. "Offensively, we're going to have to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the guys on our team who can shoot it well.''
UT sophomore Scotty Hopson, who was recruited by the Wildcats before choosing the Vols, said he realizes some of the pressure will be on him, particularly if Chism is out or limited.
"I think it helps me that I've played them once already in Rupp Arena, so I have a better idea of what to expect as far as the crowd,'' said Hopson, a former McDonald's All-American from Hopkinsville, Ky. "The big thing for me will be scoring early in the offense, or scoring late. All of our key players are going to have to make plays.
"It's going to take special.''