KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee men’s basketball team has a mighty big opportunity today.
The 11th-ranked Volunteers (6-0) play this afternoon at third-ranked Pittsburgh (10-0) in a marquee matchup at the CONSOL Energy Center.
Tennessee doesn’t get to play coach Bruce Pearl’s beloved underdog card that much these days, but it can today.
“Pitt’s ranked third in the country, and I understand why,” said Pearl, whose teams have won four of their last six games against top-five opponents and are 5-1 against teams from the perennially powerful Big East Conference. “The two teams I’ve been most impressed with, sort of as a fan, has been Duke and Pitt.
“Pitt’s probably the deepest team in the country, as far as quality, 1 through 11. I’ve never gone up against [Panthers coach] Jamie Dixon before, but I can understand now what people have said about him, and that is he is a great coach. And they do great stuff.
“This was the Volunteers volunteering,” Pearl added. “Everybody in the SEC has been through the SEC-Big East Challenge ... and there weren’t a lot of volunteers to go up to Pittsburgh and play Pittsburgh without a return game.”
But the Vols have embraced the challenge.
“It’s going to be tough,” UT junior guard Scotty Hopson said. “It’s going to be a hostile environment. It’s going to be one of our toughest games of the season. But we’re looking forward to it. It’s a Big East school, on the road, a big stage. But we love that. That’s why we came to Tennessee.
“We love making statements, and this is an opportunity to make a really big statement that Tennessee is a force to be reckoned with. We know that, and we want to come out and prove that again.”
Good luck with that.
Pitt has won 89 of its past 90 nonconference games in Pittsburgh. The Panthers are 82-1 in home nonconference games since moving to the Peterson Events Center nine years ago, and they defeated crosstown rival Duquesne on Dec. 1 in CONSOL, today’s downtown setting.
Pearl joked that he accepted this game only “to put myself in good stead” with SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who has suspended from UT’s first eight conference games this season.
“I volunteered the game. We’ll see how it works out,” Pearl said with a smile. “I know the commissioner, in all seriousness, has appreciated the fact that Tennessee’s basketball program has upgraded the schedule, and we’ve taken a leadership role with strength of schedule and RPI. So it does. It fits.
“We’re going to get a good barometer of where we’re at.”
The Vols, much to their disappointment, won’t add Jeronne Maymon to the mix today. The 6-foot-7, 258-pound transfer from Marquette passed all his fall semester classes, and his grades have been posted, but the university won’t clear him to play until probably sometime next week. This weekend remains within the window when grades can be changed.
Also, sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge is doubtful today. He sprained his ankle while walking down stairs on the way to Thursday’s practice.
Even so, Pearl conceded that Tennessee still is “one of the deeper teams in the country.”
It also is one of the nation’s most confident teams. The Vols demolished Middle Tennessee State after beating then-seventh-ranked Villanova for the NIT Season Tip-Off title in Madison Square Garden.
Today’s challenge is even tougher, but the potential reward is even greater.
“We love games like this,” senior center Brian Williams said. “We love big games. It’s a big stage to show what you can do, show people what Tennessee basketball is all about.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.