KNOXVILLE - Needing a big win, the Tennessee basketball team hit the road Wednesday night without its biggest player.
The Volunteers play at South Carolina tonight without Brian Williams, UT's top center who missed all three days of practice this week getting treatment for a sore back.
"It's significant, but we've prepared without him," UT coach Bruce Pearl said after Wednesday's practice. "I feel like we'll certainly miss Brian's rebounding ability. We'll miss his passing ability. He's been a steadying influence. Historically he's always played well against [South Carolina coach] Darrin [Horn]. I feel like they're prepared."
John Fields will continue to start at center for UT (17-12, 7-7 Southeastern Conference), which needs to win to bolster their chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. How Pearl will fill the minutes created by Williams' void, however, will be the challenge.
Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall, who have averaged 11 minutes per game between them in their eight combined appearances in SEC games, figure to see their roles increased. Tobias Harris, who normally plays the forward spot, could also slide over to center for some rotations.
"[Maymon and Hall are] both fresh," Pearl said. "John Fields is, too. We've got three fresh bodies in there that should be in position to step up for us."
South Carolina's length on the back line of its zone will test the Vols, whether it's UT's new-look frontcourt or its slashing guards. Sam Muldrow, the SEC's leading shot blocker, holds South Carolina's career blocks record, and the 6-foot-9 senior blocked six UT shots in the previous meeting and had a 10-block game against Vanderbilt in January.
"They've been playing a lot of zone because they're so long," Pearl said. "You can get the ball to great spots against them, but can you score it? That's the deal. We can get it where we want to get it, and they know that, but you get the ball in around the basket and it goes back a lot."
The 6-10, 272-pound Williams scored 10 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out five assists in the Vols' 73-67 win against South Carolina (14-13, 5-9) two weeks ago. While UT loses his vision and patience in passing against the Gamecocks' 2-3 zone defense, the Vols must handle the length and athleticism of the league's top offensive rebounding team without its best rebounder.
"That's going to be the biggest gap to fill because Brian's our best rebounder," said Hall, who had three points and three rebounds in seven minutes in the previous game with South Carolina.
"I'm just going to step in and do my best to fill his shoes and produce for the team. I've been out getting ready all season long. I look at any time I get a chance to step on the court as an opportunity for me. I might do something that electrifies us, be that spark off the bench."
Added Maymon: "We need everybody to rebound. Everybody needs to crash. [We] need four people on the glass at all times."
Maymon scored five points in his 16 minutes in UT's last two games, but the 6-foot-7 transfer from Marquette has struggled with turnovers despite his aggressive abilities on the glass.
"He's one of those guys you notice every rebound [and] you notice every basket," Pearl said. "He doesn't do anything quietly. He does it very vigorously. But we're going to need more from him.
"You could be in a situation where this could be really very difficult. This is going to be difficult, but I think because of our depth, it's still doable. [But] we're going to miss [Williams]."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrownTFP