The four-way tie atop the SEC East has dissolved to two, thanks to Florida and now Kentucky having slipped up on the road. Tonight that test falls to Tennessee and South Carolina, both in the state of Mississippi, and both looking to keep pace in the division and shore up their NCAA Tournament credentials.
The Vols will be in Oxford, where the Rebels' only losses this season are to West Virginia and LSU. Ole Miss had really played themselves back into some conversations in a three game win streak over Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn, but last week's road trip to Vandy and LSU found them winless, and puts the Rebels at 13-11 on the season and now on the NIT bubble, needing to finish above .500 to make the field.
You have to continue to admire what this team has done in the absence of Chris Warren and under the extracirricular circumstances surrounding Andy Kennedy earlier this year. David Huertas, Puerto Rico's finest, has scored 15+ in seven straight games (his career high, before you ask, is 29 points in the SEC Tournament last season). The Vols will also have to deal with his backcourt mate, freshman Terrico White from Memphis, who's scored double figures in five straight contests.
In his press conference this week, Bruce Pearl also described the Rebels as tough and physical, which means this should be a complete test for the Vols. The Vols are yet to win three straight SEC contests, though confidence should be high after two home drubbings of Georgia and Vandy last week. Tyler Smith rose to the occasion at home, and the Vols will need another great leadership effort from him tonight. And J.P. Prince has been everywhere in the last couple of weeks.
Still, can someone else aside from the Tyler/Chism/Prince combo step up and provide the extra scoring to push the Vols over the top? It's been Bobby Maze some nights and Scotty Hopson others, and if Huertas is allowed to go off the way several guards have against the Vols, Tennessee is going to need points to match.
On the other hand, slowing Huertas would be great practice and a great motivator before the Vols see Jodie Meeks again on Saturday.
This is a game Tennessee needs. The next four after this one are at Kentucky, home for Mississippi State, at Florida and at South Carolina. You'd love to go into that stretch on a three game winning streak and playing with the necessary confidence, not to mention still atop the SEC East leaderboard. If this team is going to be tough enough to get some of those wins in those hostile environments with the East on the line, they can start showing it with a win in Oxford tonight.