Bruce Pearl talks about the Vols trip to Georgia
Once upon a time, Tennessee dominated Georgia in men's basketball, winning 10 games in a row over the Bulldogs.
That story was brought to an emphatic end last season in Athens, Ga., when Georgia scored a statement victory, 78-63.
The Vols (11-6, 1-2 SEC) look to start the next chapter of the border-state rivalry on a positive note when they tip off against the Bulldogs (13-3, 2-1) at Stegeman Coliseum tonight (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.).
Once again, UT coach Bruce Pearl won't be on the bench as he serves the fourth game of his eight-game SEC suspension.
Pearl said goodbye to the players and staff Monday night in Knoxville, opting not to make the trip to Athens.
"If we could have done our walk-through there, I would have gone,'' Pearl said. "But Georgia has a gymnastics meet going on, so I won't be able to work with them at all.
"I can't help them anymore; the game plan is in, the scout is in, and the play calls are in,'' he said. "It's one thing at Arkansas where we had a 12 o'clock tip, but for me to be in the hotel all day and try to avoid them doesn't make much sense.''
One of Pearl's parting comments to his team during Monday's practice was that "(Trey) Thompkins is the best player in the league."
Thompkins, the SEC's preseason player of the year, has been an obvious focal point for UT during its preparation.
"We'll use all three of our bigs, Brian (Williams), Kenny (Hall) and John (Fields),'' Pearl said. "Our bigs will be in foul trouble.
"They put (Thompkins) at the four - that will be as tough of a matchup as Tobias (Harris) will have all year.''
The Vols' staple has been man-to-man defense, but with Georgia struggling shooting from the perimeter (31.3 percent with an SEC-low 68 made 3-pointers) it's possible UT might switch some things up.
Whatever approach the Vols take, they will need to go about it with greater energy than they showed in Monday's practice.
UT's scout team got the better of the starters in scrimmage.
"The fact we didn't have the energy today was an example of how not to play,'' Pearl said. "I would have liked to have come out a little sharper today.''
Anything less than a high-energy performance could result in a repeat of last year's blowout in Athens, as Georgia led by double-digits from the midway point of the first half to the final buzzer.
Junior Cameron Tatum, one of four UT players who played his high school ball in Georgia, still can recall Travis Leslie's highlight dunk like it was yesterday.
Leslie's two-handed, reverse windmill dunk made ESPN's SportsCenter that day and served notice that the new era of Georgia basketball under coach Mark Fox had begun.
"Losing that game and the streak hurt, because it was something we wanted to keep going,'' Tatum said. "I was sitting on the bench when Leslie had that dunk, so I had a real good view.''
It's likely many recruits did, too, though it didn't sway last season's Georgia Mr. Basketball since-turned Vols point guard Trae Golden from picking UT.
"Georgia recruited me hard, and it ultimately came down to Georgia and Tennessee,'' said Golden, who originally made a verbal commitment to play at Ohio State. "I know Trey (Thompkins) pretty well; we played AAU ball together, and I see Travis (Leslie) all the time when I go back home.
"It's a big game for all of us.''
Missing Pearl?: Tatum said Pearl's absence on the trip will seem a little strange to him.
"It's going to be different, and it's going to be interesting to see how we respond,'' Tatum said. "But he can't be with us on game day anyway, and we had our walk-through here (in Knoxville).''
Point guard Melvin Goins said the team has to approach the trip as business as usual.
"We're getting used to not having coach around at games,'' Goins said. "We'll just try to keep our normal routine and come out focused.''
Underdogs: Georgia has opened as a four-point favorite, marking only the third time the Vols have been an underdog this season.
Pittsburgh was an 8-point favorite over UT, and Villanova was a 5 1/2-point favorite.