KNOXVILLE — Wednesday night was a freebie. It probably was the last one for a while.
The Tennessee men’s basketball schedule will evolve back toward its nightmarish start after the 79-48 victory over Georgia at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Georgia interim coach Pete Herrmann admits he’s had trouble rallying his players since Dennis Felton’s Jan. 29 dismissal, and the Bulldogs have lost their first nine Southeastern Conference games.
“They didn’t give up, but they didn’t want it as much as they wanted it their last game against us (in January),” UT sophomore center Brian Williams said. “They still played hard. I just think we had a better defensive effort.
“We jumped out on them quick in the first and second half. We’ve rarely done that this season, but when we do that, we can beat a lot of teams.”
The Volunteers (15-8, 6-3 SEC) will host in-state rival Vanderbilt (15-8, 4-5) on Saturday before a five-game stretch that includes visits to Ole Miss, Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina. Those last three road games are against the teams tied with the Vols atop the SEC Eastern Division standings.
“I think it’s significant that we’re one game on the other side of halfway being through, and we’re tied for first in the loss column,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We’re still in position to do what we want to do.”
One of the Vols’ final two home opponents is Mississippi State, which nearly tied LSU atop the Western Division standings Wednesday night but fell to the Tigers in double overtime.
Tennessee’s regular-season finale against Alabama doesn’t look too intimidating, but questions abound for the next six games.
“It’s going to be (tough) every single night, as you look across the league,” Pearl said. “The strong is going to survive.”
Maturity will help, too, and Wednesday was a step in that direction. Junior wing J.P. Prince said he was “embarrassed” that he didn’t pull down a single rebound in Saturday’s upset loss at Auburn, and he responded with nine rebounds against the Bulldogs.
Asked about Prince’s team-high rebounding effort, Pearl quipped, “Miracles happen every day.
“His teammates gave him a pretty hard time,” Pearl continued. “We went through the rebound totals from the last game against Georgia, and interestingly, he didn’t have a rebound in Athens, either, so it was a focus.
“J.P. is a smart player, and he knew in order for us to win, we had to get him on the boards.”
And for the Vols to defend their SEC title, they need to win most of their last seven regular-season games.
“We weren’t focusing on Georgia’s struggles,” Prince said. “We were just like, ‘We need to beat these guys,’ just like they were No. 1. Every game right now is a championship game right now.
“That ring is on the line, and we just want it. We want another one.”
Vanderbilt lost five of its first six SEC games but will come to Knoxville on a three-game winning streak, including a victory in Auburn that eluded the Vols.
Still, Saturday should be as easy as it gets for a while.
“The future schedule does not favor us, but I don’t know that it makes much difference,” Pearl said. “We know going in that the rest of the way we could lose to everybody on our schedule or we could beat them all. I think you can pretty much say that about everybody.
“Florida can look at their schedule, Kentucky can look at their schedule, and South Carolina, and they can all go, ‘We can win the rest of our games, or we could lose every one of them.’”
The Vols control their own SEC East destiny, and junior forward Tyler Smith said Thursday night the team will keep it that way.
“We’re going to pull it out and come in first; that’s what Tyler said,” Smith said while laughing at his third-person reference. “We have to worry about our opponents, but, again, I say it’s going to be on us to go on this seven-game winning streak, or whatever we have to do.
“We don’t want any help, like winning five and losing two and then waiting on somebody to lose. We don’t want that. We want to win it outright.”