KNOXVILLE -- The story of the Tennessee men's basketball team for three weeks has been one of perseverance and poise.
Many things have gone against the eighth-ranked Volunteers (14-2, 2-0 SEC), but they've gotten one undeniably good break. One of their toughest two-week stretches of the season came without four suspended scholarship contributors, but it also came at home in loudly supportive Thompson-Boling Arena.
"We were very fortunate in that regard," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "I don't know what would have happened if we'd been on the road the past two weeks, but we probably wouldn't have gone 4-0 against Charlotte, Kansas, Auburn and Ole Miss."
The Vols lose that luxury tonight, when they play at Alabama (11-6, 1-2).
Sophomore guard Cameron Tatum and junior point guard Melvin Goins, two of the suspended players, will be back in uniform tonight. How much they'll play is the question, and Pearl has commented cautiously about it.
On one hand, Tatum and Goins are two of the team's more talented players. On the flip side, though, UT's best stretch of play this season directly coincided with the four talented players leaving the lineup.
"I think (Goins and Tatum) are going to be terrific, supportive," Pearl said moments after UT's thrilling, come-from-behind overtime win against Ole Miss on Saturday. "They're proud of their friends and their teammates, and they'll work and they'll get ready, and they'll stay ready.
"Obviously, the rotations won't change right away, but it will be great to have them there."
Pearl praised his team's play during its "crucial" home stand, but he was just as quick to point out the advantages his team won't have on the road.
"We've got to find a way to win now without our crowd, without their emotion and that," he said. "We're not intimidating anybody. We're not scaring anybody. Obviously experienced players can go on the road. I've got no problem understanding our seniors will be fine, but we've got a lot of young guys, and those new guys are going to be terrifically challenged on the road. They can draw tremendous confidence from the (home) crowd, and it's almost a courage factor that affects younger players.
"It doesn't affect the veterans. In fact, our veterans will play better on the road sometimes. But you wonder about the young guys."
Junior guard Josh Bone, a Nashville native who started at Southern Illinois before walking on at UT, played in front of several unruly road crowds with the Salukis in the underrated Missouri Valley Conference.
"You just have to be mentally tough going on the road in a hostile environment," said Bone, whose clutch 3-point shooting and stifling perimeter defense helped UT overcome Ole Miss. "You just have to be ready and play the same game you play at home. You have to play defense even harder, and you have to work even harder to make baskets.
"That's what we plan to do. ... We plan to be successful."
Alabama has been inconsistent under first-year coach Anthony Grant, but the Crimson Tide are no pushovers, and Tide fans are known to get excited for games against ranked foes -- especially when they come from Knoxville.
"I'm sure it will be tough, because every road game in this league it tough," UT senior forward Wayne Chism said. "But if we do our things, and the young guys follow us older guys, we should be good."
Tatum and Goins have practiced with the team for just two days. Even if both are rusty, their fresh leagues could come in handy for a team that had smaller rotations while playing 40 minutes on Thursday and 45 on Saturday.
"Obviously, we've expounded a great deal of energy in the last three games," Pearl said. "This home stand was very, very memorable. This home stand was very, very important. This home stand was about our program. It was about our fans. There are teams that would've quit, but these guys are battling. I don't know how good we can be -- I really don't -- but I can tell you that was a very important home stand. I'm proud of them.
"But we've got to go on the road now, and it's going to be tough."
Tough, but not impossible, according to senior wing J.P. Prince.
"Going on the road is always a challenge, but we've been through a lot as a team, and we've answered the bell every time," Prince said. "Home or away or wherever, we expect to work hard and win."
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