Prince, Vols intent on avoiding 3-game skid

KNOXVILLE -- J.P. Prince needed only a fraction of a second to answer why his three-year career with the University of Tennessee men's basketball team has never included a three-game losing streak.

"I'm just not a loser," Prince said. "In life I just don't lose."

Prince continued on for a while longer.

"I've been a winner all my life, so I just don't lose that much," the senior wing added. "A two-game losing streak is bad enough. I'm sure one day I'll have a three-game losing streak. But right now, I'm trying not to have it. I'm not a loser, Coach Pearl's not a loser, and we just don't have losers around here. There's not many people around here who you could ask if they've lost three games in a row, in high school or anything.

"We have a winning tradition, and we just want to continue it."

To avoid continuing a losing streak, though, the 20th-ranked Volunteers (18-6, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) need to beat Georgia (11-12 ,3-7) tonight in Thompson-Boling Arena.

And that could be a difficult task, considering the Bulldogs already have blasted UT in Athens this season.

Georgia's big frontcourt overpowered the Vols on Jan. 23, and the game never felt as close as the 78-63 final score.

"This team didn't beat us; they dominated us," UT coach Bruce Pearl said Tuesday night. "And the matchup itself is a tough matchup, because they're a team with traditional size. (Trey) Thompkins and (Travis) Leslie are future first-round draft picks, and when those kids play well for them, they're pretty good.

"There are a number of things that we have to do better, and a number of things we have to do differently this time around in order for us to win."

But how much change is plausible? How many options does Pearl actually have?

Even before the season received its Jan. 1 crowbar to the cranium -- the arrests of four of the team's 10 healthy scholarship players -- UT knew the second week in February would be the regular season's toughest. Even ranked teams feel little shame in losing at Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Still, on the verge of possibly his program's first three-game losing streak since January 2007, Pearl is open to making major changes.

Point guards Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins probably will play a few minutes on the floor together. Junior center Brian Williams, just four games after returning from a nine-game suspension, could take serious minutes away from undersized post players Renaldo Woolridge and Steven Pearl. Sophomore leading scorer Scotty Hopson could see more minutes at the 3.

"We are working on some things and some rotations that are a little different," said Pearl, who understandably avoided mentioning specific tweaks. "With that, you're trying to improve the quality of your team. But at the same time, do you have to take one step back to take two steps forward? That's our challenge right now."

Williams, who has spent less time with the scout team the past two days, said he's eager to earn back his pre-suspension role.

"It's been a lot of anticipation; just a lot of anticipation," Williams said. "Coach Pearl just wanted me to stay ready, and that's all I could do. It was his call. If it was my call, obviously, I'd be out there 40 minutes a game.

"Second opportunities are definitely something you need to take advantage of. And I feel like I'm ready to do that. I've just got to wait for when my name's called."

Pearl said before Monday's practice that he wanted to start giving Williams more serious chances to rejoin the rotation. By Tuesday night, though, the coach claimed to still have mixed feelings on the matter.

"I thought Brian did well, but you definitely see what a month off does," Pearl said. "Now, Brian has lost weight, and Brian's had a lot of individual workouts, and Brian's work as hard as you can work stay ready. But that's not like being out here in practice, and it's not like having any kind of timing in again and so on and so forth.

"As far as him being a front-line player and going up against -- even though he hasn't played much -- but going up against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia, you're talking about three of the best front lines in the SEC."

Williams said play calls and game conditioning have been his biggest hurdles to clear the past two weeks. The 6-foot-10 New Yorker lost at least 10 pounds during his five-week absence -- that's clear, judging by his trimmer frame -- but the starts and stops of game action are hard to simulate during solitary workouts.

And then there's the five weeks' worth of new plays installed by UT's coaches.

"I feel like I'm playing a new position, so it's going to be really difficult," Williams said. "I've got a lot to learn, but Coach Pearl wanted me to stay ready, and that's what I've been doing. The confidence issue has always been a factor, but I feel like my confidence is building."

The Vols seemingly would welcome any Pearl plan that helped stop their recent skid.

"Losing two games in a row has been bad enough," Hall said. "I don't like losing one game in a row. All the losses we've ever had, I've hated every one of them."

"This Georgia game is very important. All year, we've been working trying to get to the promised land. We're still going for that, so it's very important to start winning again."

Senior point guard Bobby Maze said "this losing thing can't become contagious, especially this time of year.

"This is just not what we expected, and not what we wanted ... but it is what it is, and we're the only ones who can fix it," Maze said. "It's up to us. We're the only ones who can come out here and prove people wrong. If we stick together like a family and do what we need to do, we can still do big things.

"People have the right to think that we're done, but we have the right to prove them wrong, and I wouldn't bet against my guys.

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