Bruce Pearl on the importance of the South Carolin
Vols to sport new Adidas shoes
At 6-foot-10 and 272 pounds, Tennessee senior center Brian Williams casts a mighty big shadow.
It's a shadow that sophomores Kenny Hall and Jeronne Maymon said they're ready to step out of with Williams ruled out for tonight's men's basketball game at South Carolina (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.). Williams did not make the trip due a back injury he suffered in last Saturday's 70-69 loss to Mississippi State.
"Hopefully I can do something that electrifies us in the game and brings a spark,'' said the 6-8 Hall, who has averaged 5.9 minutes per game this season. "It's a little bit like last year, when we had four guys suspended and we had to have guys step up.
"And we did, we stepped up last year, and we'll do the same thing this year.''
The Vols (17-12, 7-7 SEC) play the Gamecocks (14-13, 5-9) with much at stake, still in contention for the SEC Eastern Division's No. 2 seed but more importantly looking to solidify their position for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
UT enters the game No. 34 in the RPI rankings and is projected to make the NCAA field by most all prognosticators.
But a loss to South Carolina, which is No. 115 in RPI, would surely place the Vols on the proverbial bubble with Sunday's home game against No. 20 Kentucky (21-8, 9-6) looming.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said he's hopeful that Williams, who has averaged seven points and 7.5 rebounds in 23.2 minutes per game, can return against the Wildcats.
"But,'' Pearl added after Williams missed his third consecutive practice on Wednesday, "backs are funny things.''
There's nothing tricky about the Gamecocks' style of play. South Carolina plays uptempo, pressing opponents when on defense while launching numerous 3-point shots and crashing the boards on offense.
The Gamecocks also feature the SEC's premier shot blocker in 6-9 Sam Muldrow, a senior who will be intent on winning his final regular-season game in Colonial Life Arena.
Muldrow blocked six shots in the teams' first meeting, a 73-67 UT win on Feb. 16 in Knoxville.
With Williams out, the Muldrow matchup falls on Hall, Maymon, starting center John Fields and freshman Tobias Harris.
Pearl said Harris will get some minutes at center when Maymon enters the game, as the 6-7 Maymon plays power forward on offense while assuming some post duties on defense.
"Jeronne is one of those guys, you notice every rebound and every basket he makes, because he doesn't do anything quietly,'' Pearl said. "He does things vigorously.''
Maymon, like Hall, has spent the majority of this season playing on UT's scout team, averaging 9.2 minutes per game and playing in just three SEC contests.
"There's a lot more to my game than people have seen,'' said Maymon, twice named Wisconsin's high school player of the year before starting his career at Marquette and transferring to Tennessee last season. "I'll play the best I can on offense and defense, but I'm going to be careful to do it within the team's chemistry.''
The importance of team depth has been a reccurring storyline throughout Pearl's five-plus seasons leading the Vols' program.
"Our depth is already playing a factor this year,'' Pearl said. "And without Brian Williams, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and the center that logs the most minutes for us, this will be difficult.
"But because of our depth, it's still doable.''
Pearl said the Vols will obviously miss Williams on the offensive glass, as he's second in SEC contests with 3.3 offensive rebounds per game.
But Williams also possesses strong passing ability, particularly against the type of zone defense that South Carolina plays when it settles into a half-court set.
"Brian is a great passer in the zone, but we have a lot of confidence that Kenny and Jeronne will be able to come in and do some things,'' said Steven Pearl, whose minutes at power forward might also be slightly elevated as a result of Williams' absence. "The thing we've got to be mindful of is (South Carolina) is also a great offensive rebounding team.''
Bruce Pearl said he expects a fast-paced game, but he doesn't want it to get too fast.
"I don't mind going fast, but we don't want a track meet,'' Bruce Pearl said. "If the tempo is like a tennis match, it's not good for us.''