KNOXVILLE -- Southeastern Conference Eastern Division shakedown week continues but won't conclude tonight when ranked rivals Tennessee and Vanderbilt battle in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Fourteenth-ranked UT (15-3, 3-1) still hosts Florida this weekend, when No. 21 Vandy (15-3, 4-0) will visit top-ranked Kentucky.
But the Volunteers and Commodores start their end of the wild week tonight.
"I've never overdone (talking about) what this means," UT coach Bruce Pearl said Tuesday night. "You get to this point in the SEC, and we can smile and grin at each other because we've gone through a few seasons together, and you can ask me that question every single night, 'Is this a must win?' Every day, you can ask that question ... but here's the deal. You've got to win on your home court, and you've got to win some on the road.
"The players know how important this. Right now, Vanderbilt's playing better than anybody we've played in here this year. Remember, Kansas came in here and they'd almost lost to Cornell, and they weren't playing their best basketball at that moment. But this Vanderbilt team has won nine in a row and is playing as well as anybody in the country."
In that sense, Pearl and his team were relieved to see senior forward Wayne Chism practice Tuesday on a knee he tweaked in a weekend loss at Georgia.
Chism left practice a few minute early to attend a night class, so he wasn't made available to the media, but Pearl said his big man seemed plenty good enough to play tonight -- assuming his knee didn't swell badly overnight.
"We didn't go live, but he looked all right," Pearl said. "He's a tough kid, and he wants to play, and the trainers say it's not loose. It was a bang and a bruise, and whatever strain he had from the hyperextension didn't create any swelling or any laxity. He's sore but it's tight, so he should be OK.
"Now, he hasn't done anything since Saturday, so we'll see."
Senior wing J.P. Prince said Chism seemed "normal" Tuesday night, practicing full speed and participating in every drill. Chism ran with the team, too, and he slammed home several dunks during drills.
But Chism, who has typically gotten the better of Vanderbilt star center A.J. Ogilvy, still must tangle with the tall Australian without suspended frontcourt teammate Brian Williams' help. Williams also has bothered Ogilvy with his size and physical presence inside.
"I think Wayne always takes it as a personal challenge to compete against Ogilvy, so I'm not worried about him or his health or anything," Prince said. "I know he'll be ready to go against him, because he always is. He always has a good game against him and always takes it very seriously, because he knows that's one of his top competitions in the league."
Regardless, Pearl said these Commodores are the "deepest and most talented" he's faced during a five-year tenure with the Vols. Vandy is always tough in Memorial Gymnasium, but these Commodores have won at Alabama and South Carolina in league play. Surrounding Ogilvy and veteran point guard Jermaine Beal with a talented group of underclassmen, they've emerged as legitimate SEC title contenders.
Asked what he expected to learn from his team during this brutal week, Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said, "I think I know quite a bit about them already. They're a fun group to coach. They compete hard. They're not perfect, and there's things we don't do as well as we'd like, but they play hard for each other, and they try hard to do what, as coaches, we ask them to do.
"Obviously this is a very big week, and a very tough week. Every place in this league is difficult to play on the road, but obviously (UT and Kentucky) have been two of the toughest for us. In any event, we're happy with where we're at right now."
Vols sophomore guard Scotty Hopson said the Commodores look "a lot better than last year" on video, and he expects them to show that tonight.
"They're playing great. They're really confident right now, and they should be," Hopson said. "They're definitely going to come in here and try to take this game away from us. We've just got to come out, stick to our game plan, get it inside to Wayne and get him off to a good start, and just keep the defense up and stop them."
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