Vols dangerous on home court

KNOXVILLE -- Saturday was the latest evidence that Thompson-Boling Arena has become the University of Tennessee's fortified, riverside compound.

The 19th-ranked Volunteers (21-7, 9-5 Southeastern Conference), despite a tumultuous season full of constant roster adjustments, have beaten top-ranked Kansas and now second-ranked Kentucky in their big orange fortress.

Five top-six opponents have visited Thompson-Boling in Coach Bruce Pearl's five seasons with the Vols. All five have left with losses.

UT is 69-8 at home under Pearl.

But the Vols play just one more home game this season -- Wednesday's senior night clash with Arkansas (14-15, 7-7 SEC).

It's certainly ordinary for teams to play better on their home floors. They sleep in their own beds. They change in their own locker room. They shoot on their own rims. And, at least in the Vols' case, they have 20,000-plus fans cheering them and crushing their opponents.

But UT's home and away splits are beyond ordinary.

The Vols have home wins that would put an exclamation point on any team's NCAA tournament resume, but they've also suffered through some particularly wretched road stinkers. Their 22-point loss at Southern California, 15-point loss at Georgia and 19-point loss at Vanderbilt all rank among the biggest blowout losses of the Pearl era.

"You can tell on the road that some of our guys don't step up," senior forward Wayne Chism said. "But when we're at home, we have different guys step up."

But why haven't they done that away from home? And how do they avoid being check-mated so easily away from the checkerboards?

Pearl quite understandably wasn't ready to discuss those topics in the immediate wake of Saturday's big splash.

"I'm not even going to worry about that right now," Pearl said. "Right now, I want them to celebrate this. I want everybody to celebrate this. Let's celebrate this for a minute. When you have as many roster adjustments as we've had, I just don't think these guys have ever been complacent.

"They've not always played as well as they could play, but ... we'll worry about that later on. Right now, let's just enjoy this one."

Pearl refused to dismiss his team as road roadkill, though.

"We're a basketball team that went to Memphis and won," he said. "We're a basketball team that went to Alabama and won. We went to LSU and won. And we went to South Carolina and beat a South Carolina team that beat (Kentucky) and Florida at home.

"This is a team that doesn't necessarily have to live here in the friendly confines of home."

Maybe so.

But Memphis, South Carolina, Alabama and LSU will probably only get NCAA tournament bids by winning their conference tournaments.

UT can point to a last-second, 73-72, neutral-court loss to third-ranked Purdue on Nov. 23, but senior All-SEC forward Tyler Smith was still with the Vols at that point.

Count senior wing J.P. Prince in with those admitting UT hasn't been great away from Thompson-Boling but refusing to accept that long-term fate.

"The courts are the same size, and the rims are the same size, and it's still basketball," Prince said. "If we can beat anybody here -- and we know we can, obviously -- then we can beat them anywhere else."

Pearl and his players understand the biggest reason they're generally so dominant at home. It's their crowd's palpable energy.

"We just have to learn to capture that when we're not here," Pearl admitted.

In other words, it's got to come from within the team and coaching staff.

Motivation shouldn't be a problem, said senior point guard Bobby Maze, who barely ate for days after UT's first-round NCAA tournament loss to Oklahoma State last season and didn't watch basketball for weeks.

"Just being in the tournament and knowing you can go home any day, that's enough fire right there," Maze said. "You're not worrying about anything except advancing."

Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.