Pearl: Compete or get off the court
It’s difficult to make changes at this late in the season.
So says Bruce Pearl.
And yet, the Tennessee men’s basketball coach knows that UT must change if it’s to beat No. 18 Vanderbilt and strengthen its position for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
Tennessee (16-11, 6-6 SEC) plays the Commodores (20-6, 8-4) in Memorial Gymnasium tonight (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.).
“What we have to do is play better,’’ Pearl said. “Play with efficiency, rebound your position, defend physical, be accountable.
“It’s not about confidence or effort, it’s about performance.’’
Pearl delivered that message to his players in fire-breathing fashion at the conclusion of Monday’s practice before the team boarded a bus for Nashville.
The Vols are in dire need of a spark, having lost four of their past five games despite junior shooting guard Scotty Hopson enjoying some of the finest performances of his career.
“I’ve been playing some good basketball and putting up some numbers,’’ said Hopson, who’s coming off a career-high 32-point performance in Saturday’s 69-63 home loss to Georgia. “But I would trade those numbers for some wins. I’m just going to go right at them (tonight).’’
Vanderbilt enters the game as a seven-point favorite, which one might expect considering the Commodores are riding a five-game win streak and are 14-1 at home this season.
Memorial Gym, with the teams’ benches at the ends of the court instead of at the side, has been a thorn in Pearl’s side.
The Vols have dropped three of their past four games in the 59-year-old, 14,316-seat arena.
UT senior point guard Melvin Goins said the gym’s unique configuration — which includes a raised floor — can be a factor.
“You just have to listen and look for Coach when he calls the plays,’’ Goins said. “It’s different, but we’ve got a sour taste in our mouths. I’m just going to go at them defensively and try to wear their guards down.’’
Vanderbilt’s 6-foot-3 junior point guard, Brad Tinsley, leads the SEC in assists (4.4 per game), averages 10.8 points per game and is hitting 37.5 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point arc.
Then there’s the wing duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor to contend with: Jenkins leads the league in scoring (19.9 ppg), and the 6-7 Taylor is coming off a 20-point, 10-rebound effort in a 77-60 win at Auburn on Saturday.
There’s a good chance UT senior reserve Josh Bone will see 20 or more minutes coming off the bench, as he’s considered the Vols’ best perimeter defender.
Bone said he hopes to draw Jenkins, with whom he competed over the summer while playing in Nashville’s invitation-only pick-up games in Memorial Gym.
“I know his game a bit; we’d guard each other last summer,’’ said Bone, a Nashville native. “He’s a lights-out shooter, so you try to make him uncomfortable, bump him off screens, and try to get him to put it on the floor.’’
Bone said he’ll be on the floor chasing loose balls or raising his voice when needed.
“I’m normally a quiet person who doesn’t say much, but losing isn’t what I came here for,’’ said Bone, who transferred from Southern Illinois two seasons ago. “Losing isn’t in my blood.’’
Williams flu?: UT senior center Brian Williams sat out part of practice with what Pearl said were flu-like symptoms, but he is expected to start tonight.
Williams had eight points and 12 rebounds in the teams’ earlier meeting this season, as the Vols rallied from a 17-point deficit for a 67-64 win.
OUTLIVE: UT announced it has raised $70,000 this year for its cancer research/screening initiative for the UT Medical Center Cancer Institute. That boosts the total raised since the program’s inception during the 2008-09 season to more than $330,000.
Orange Slices: Vandy leads the SEC in free-throw attempts (301) and free-throw shooting percentage (77.1). The Vols rank last in the SEC in free throw attempts (198) and are 10th in free-throw shooting percentage (65.2). ... The only game in which Vandy had more than 15 turnovers this season was its loss in Knoxville (21). ... UT is No. 33 in the most recent RPI rankings with a strength of schedule ranked No.2. Vanderbilt is No. 17 in the RPI rankings. ... Pearl is 30-6 against in-state opponents at UT.