Bruce Pearl on facing Kentucky and rejoining his team on the bus
Coach Bruce Pearl will be back in the Tennessee huddle at Kentucky tonight.
The Vols’ leading scorer, Scotty Hopson, probably will, too.
But it remains to be seen how much of a lift Pearl’s game-day presence will provide and how much lift Hopson can muster against the No. 18 Wildcats at Rupp Arena (TV: 9 p.m., ESPN).
Hopson, who averages 16.5 points per game and is from Hopkinsville, Ky., has missed the past two games with a sprained left ankle suffered during a Feb. 1 practice.
Tennessee (15-8, 5-3 SEC) will try to become the first team to beat Kentucky (16-6, 4-4) at Rupp Arena since John Calipari took over as Wildcats coach prior to last season.
Kentucky’s string of 29 consecutive home wins includes 10 victories this season and dates back to a 90-85 loss to Georgia on March 4, 2009. It’s the second-longest active streak of its kind in the NCAA behind Duke’s 32-game streak.
“Hopefully I can help ... I don’t know that we’d be in any different position if I had been here for eight (SEC) games,’’ said Pearl, who in the teams’ most recent meeting suffered the most lopsided defeat in his 5-plus years at UT, 74-45, in last season’s SEC tournament. “We’ve got more to be concerned about playing Kentucky at Kentucky, and the challenges there, than whether I’m back or not.’’
Calipari was asked if he thought UT would look any different with Pearl back on the bench.
“No ... deep team, very talented, maybe the most talent in the league,’’ Calipari told the Lexington Herald Leader. “They’ve got great size, good players, play really hard. Play physical. They’re going to try to bump and grind and grab. They do it full court, half court.’’
UT junior wing Cameron Tatum said the biggest difference with Pearl returning will be hearing a familiar voice on play calls and in the team huddles.
“It’s great to have our leader back, our general,’’ Tatum said. “It will be good to have everything back to normal.’’
While Pearl lists Hopson’s official status as “questionable,” he made it clear he expects Hopson to attempt to play against his home-state school.
“I would anticipate he will try to play, yes,’’ Pearl said. “Will Scotty, in reduced minutes (and) not being 100-percent still be effective for us? Yes.
“There will be some things Scotty can do, and there will be some things he won’t be able to do.’’
Hopson went through warm-up drills in Monday’s practice but did not take part in contact work before the team left for Lexington, Ky. He was not made available for media interviews.
Pearl revealed that Vols freshman forward Tobias Harris isn’t completely healed after twisting his ankle in UT’s 74-57 win at Ole Miss on Jan. 29.
Harris — who missed two days of practice after his ankle injury but hasn’t missed playing time — said Hopson could make a difference even if he’s playing in a limited capacity.
“Scotty helps us every time he’s out there,’’ Harris said. “When he’s not out there, I’ll have to be more aggressive and do what I’ve got to do to hold the fort down.
“I want to win, so I’ve got to gut it out and fight through it (sore ankle).’’
Harris figures to have his hands full against Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, who at 6-foot-8 and 244 pounds is averaging a team-high 17.9 points and 8.9 rebounds.
No doubt, as much as the game is about the Vols taking care of their own business, the Wildcats lineup presents plenty of challenges.
Pearl said UT’s 5-foot-9 senior point guard, Melvin Goins, has one of the tougher matchups against the 6-3 Brandon Knight (17.5 points per game).
“Melvin will be challenged in a big way; they’ll go at him,’’ Pearl said. “Brandon Knight likes to score over smaller point guards. This is the most size Melvin will go at as far as the point guard matchup.’’
Goins, who stepped up against talented guards in wins over Pittsburgh and Villanova earlier this season, didn’t sound too intimidated.
“We’ve got to contain them and play team defense; they like to go middle,’’ Goins said. “It will be good to go there and get a win ... I’m anxious to see what it feels like.’’
The last time any UT player or coach knew what a win at Kentucky felt like was in 2006, when former Vols All-American Chris Lofton scored 31 points in a 75-67 victory.
Tennessee has lost 10 of its past 11 games in Rupp Arena, and yet, Pearl said Monday it’s his favorite place to play outside of Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Favorite is a good word, yeah, because of the history and tradition,’’ Pearl said. “You walk in there and it’s very special. There’s an atmosphere that’s very festive.’’