Things were very different when last we met.
Charlotte was UT's first opponent after the January 1 arrests, and even before then we looked at the 49ers as a huge trap game, sandwiched between Memphis and Kansas. The Vols passed their first test without four arrested players, building a 24 point lead, watching it fall to 6 early in the second half, then stepping on the gas again for an eventual 88-71 victory. Though it would be immediately overshadowed by the win over #1 Kansas four days later, at the time it was a huge win - a sign that this team could still compete.
The Vols, of course, would do more than just compete the rest of the year. But for a time, so did Charlotte - a month after the loss to the Vols, the 49ers were still 18-5 and 8-1 in Atlantic 10 play, with all five losses to eventual NCAA Tournament teams.
But the 49ers collapsed in spectacular fashion down the stretch, losing six of their final seven before getting bounced in the first round of the A10 Tournament to end their season. It was a slide that cost coach Bobby Lutz his job, a tough blow for the winningest coach in Charlotte (his alma mater) history. Lutz took the 49ers to five NCAA Tournaments from 1999-2005, but hadn't been able to get them there since they moved from Conference USA to the Atlantic 10.
Lutz was replaced by Alan Major, a nine year disciple of Thad Matta at Xavier and Ohio State. This means Major knows the Vols well, having been on the bench for all four of the UT-OSU battles in the last four years. Hopefully, the history of extraordinarily competitive games that exists between Pearl and Matta won't rub off on Major.
And really, there's no reason to think it will.
That's because the Niners are 4-6 this year, and instead of losses to a bunch of NCAA Tournament teams, this year they've fallen to Gardner-Webb, George Mason, Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, East Carolina, and Davidson. And making matters worse, their best player Shamari Spears has been dismissed from the team. They've been playing without him since November 27, using only an eight man rotation.
Spears and DiJuan Harris were in double figures for Charlotte against the Vols last year, meaning with Harris' graduation and Spears' dismissal, only guard Derrio Green had a productive night against the Vols last season among returning players ("productive" here being described as 14 points despite jacking 12 threes and only hitting 3 of them). The Vols really locked down on Charlotte's interior players last year, meaning Brian Williams and Tobias Harris will need to follow in Wayne Chism's footsteps against 6'9" Chris Braswell and 6'6" An'Juan Wilderness. Braswell had 9 rebounds in last year's game, but only 4 points.
The unknown is guard Jamar Briscoe, a transfer who now leads the team in scoring after Spears' dismissal. Briscoe averages 14.8 points and 4.0 assists. They're not a good shooting team - 41.4% from the floor and 33.3% from the arc, with only backup Gokhan Sirin hitting above 40% from three - and if the Vols can rediscover the halfcourt defense that carried them in the seven wins instead of the shoddy work that cost them against Oakland, Tennessee should be able to keep Charlotte comfortably under 70.
Any thoughts of a hostile environment are tempered - the game is at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena instead of on campus, and while Charlotte is planning a blackout (meaning the Vols will be in their home whites), there should also be plenty of Tennessee fans in the house.
If the Vols are angry over Oakland, this is the perfect team to take it out on. A good Southern Cal team is waiting on Tuesday, so the Vols need to play well and regain their confidence before then. Jeronne Maymon is cleared to play, and with Renaldo Woolridge available but probably not 100%, Maymon should get plenty of work behind Tobias Harris.
And of course, you'll want to watch Scotty Hopson. Despite his inconsistent past, I'm more than willing to give him a pass on his performance against Oakland because his performance against Pitt was so good. He doesn't need 25 against Charlotte to convince me he's okay, but if he struggles again it's going to be a story...and we'd just all rather avoid that.
This is a game Tennessee should win, and win easily. Honestly, I'd like to see the Vols come out and destroy this team the way a really good team should. If the Vols manhandled Pitt, they should dominate this team...and if a bunch of walk-ons playing together for the first time could beat a better Charlotte team by 17 last year, the Vols should have more than enough to get it done against this Charlotte team tonight.
CBS College Sports - 8:00 PM EST