Josh Bone on making his second start for UT
The First Saturday in February doesn't have the same ring to it as The Third Saturday in October.
But it's still Tennessee (15-7, 5-2 SEC) versus Alabama (14-7, 6-1), the team that plays more physical is expected to win, and there are potential SEC championship implications.
"This has the feel of a big game,'' said UT senior Josh Bone, who will make his second start in place of shooting guard Scotty Hopson (sprained ankle).
"Coach (Bruce) Pearl told us it's going to be like an SEC championship game, because we are two teams in the race for the league title.''
The Vols are favored by a (3-point) field goal to beat the Crimson Tide at Thompson-Boling Arena today (TV: FSTN, 5 p.m.).
SEC West Division-leading Alabama has a league-best four-game win streak and has won nine of its past 10.
The Crimson Tide defense leads the nation in points per possession (0.83), ranks second in the country in shooting defense (36.3 percent) and fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 57 points per game.
If you didn't know any better, you might think Nick Saban had taken up coaching basketball.
Instead, it's second-year coach Anthony Grant leading the Tide. Grant came to Alabama as one of the most sought-after coaches in the nation after compiling a 76-25 record during his three-year stint at Virginia Commonwealth. All of Grant's teams have had a penchant for playing hard.
"It's going to be a very physical game,'' said Pearl, who will complete his SEC suspension today, turning over game-day duties to UT associate head coach Tony Jones for the eighth and final time this season. "The key for us will be to take care of the ball, because Alabama also leads the league in steals.
"You give them turnovers, it fuels their offense.''
The Vols have won five consecutive SEC games, but the Tide represents a different level of league competition.
The combined record of the five SEC teams the Vols have beaten is 12-25, and none of those teams have a winning record in conference play entering today's action.
"It's a step up for us,'' UT senior John Fields said. "This is one of the most athletic front lines that we'll see.''
No doubt, Alabama has outscored each of its opponents in the paint this season.
Tide junior JaMychal Green (15.7 points, 7.7 rebounds per game) leads the way. At 6-foot-8 and 228 pounds, Green is regarded as one of the finer athletes in college basketball.
"JaMychal is on every Olympic developmental team,'' Pearl said. "John Fields and Brian Williams don't get invited to those kind of things.''
Maybe not, but Williams has played big of late. In his past 47 minutes of action, Williams has hit 13 of 16 shots (81.3 percent) and has 33 points and 17 rebounds.
Pearl noted that in the five SEC wins, opponents have averaged 18 points between their power forwards/posts, while in two league losses those positions have combined to average 33 points.
Tennessee freshman Tobias Harris, still recovering from an ankle injury suffered last Saturday at Ole Miss, will be challenged.
"They're going to come right at Tobias,'' Pearl said. "(Chris) Hines is a good defender, and I'm sure he'll be excited about trying to shut Tobias down.''
Harris, who was outplayed in UT's loss at Arkansas, said he knows what awaits him.
"Alabama has tough guys that will come out and play hard,'' Harris said. "We'll have to bring all that we've got.''
Hopson Update: Hopson took shots with the team during Friday's practice but didn't take part in any drills.
Hopson, who said prior to this injury he has never missed playing time in his career because of injury, remains questionable for Tuesday's game at Kentucky.
TV Info: UT said next Saturday's game at Florida will be televised by ESPN at 6 p.m.