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SEC-Big East Invitational Preview: Tennessee vs Pittsburgh

All this, plus stache.
All this, plus stache.

It's the return match of the last truly elite moment for the Tennessee Basketball program, as #17 Pittsburgh comes to Knoxville to face the 3-3 Volunteers. Tennessee's momentum from playing good basketball against great opponents in Maui was derailed against Oakland on Monday, but the Vols can certainly get it all back with a win here. If Cuonzo Martin is looking for an early big win to make us believe, he'll have to wait a while if he doesn't get this one: the Vols' next six games are against Austin Peay, College of Charleston, UNC Asheville, ETSU, The Citadel, and UT-Chattanooga. The Vols' season won't be made or broken against Pittsburgh Saturday, but a win would sure go a long way.

That's what we thought last year too, when the Vols went to #3 Pitt and flat out dominated, winning 83-76 in a game they led by 21 midway through the second half. Tennessee shot 7 of 11 from the arc and out-rebounded an excellent Pittsburgh team. At the time, we thought the Vols were a Final Four contender.

But those dreams vanished, as has the hero of the day, Scotty Hopson. Many of Pitt's leading contributors from last season have also gone, but guard Ashton Gibbs remains, leading the team with 19.1 points per game while hitting 42.9% of his threes. Last year the Vols held him to 4 of 13 shooting and forced four turnovers. It'll be interesting to see how Cuonzo Martin chooses to defend him, especially after getting shredded by Reggie Hamilton at Oakland for 35 on Monday.

The Panthers are 6-1 but haven't been all that impressive just yet. They lost to Long Beach State 86-76 and have close wins over the likes of Rider and La Salle. Again, stats are particularly worthless early in a season, but the Panthers are 7th nationally in assists, 12th in FG%, and 32nd in scoring at 80.4 points per game. If Tennessee can't slow them down, they'll again have to score a lot of points to give themselves a chance to win. The Vols are averaging 84.7 points per game, but that's inflated by a pair of overtimes.

On paper, Pittsburgh's biggest advantage is once again in offensive rebounding, something the Vols struggled with against Oakland. While Tennessee continues to shoot the three well, now 17th nationally at 43.5%, the Vols also need to continue to make it their business to get to the free throw line. The Vols are knocking down 74.5% of their free throws, and it's comforting to know that UT's leading scorers - Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, and Cameron Tatum - are all having a good run from the line right now.

Behind Gibbs, the Panthers are paced by point guard Travon Woodall, but he's questionable for Saturday's game. It'll be interesting to see who Trae Golden matches up with with or without Woodall; Jordan McRae or Cameron Tatum could draw Gibbs.

It'll also be interesting to watch Dwight Miller, who transferred from Pitt to Knoxville. He's averaging 2.8 points and 1.8 rebounds in a little under nine minutes per game right now, but you never know what a guy will do against his former team if given the opportunity.

This is an opportunity game for Tennessee, the last one that will come around until January 4 at Memphis. We need a great home crowd...and you know, we need something good on campus. The Vanderbilt win was nice the way it happened, but I remember walking out of Neyland Stadium with everyone singing, "IT'S GREAT...TO BE...", and in the back of my was still Vanderbilt. It was a circumstantial celebration.

But this would be a big win for Tennessee under any circumstance, the good moment the University of Tennessee really needs. It could be huge for Tennessee and even bigger for Cuonzo Martin...I expect the Vols to fight hard and compete the same way they have all year. If the Vols can slow down Gibbs and take advantage of Pitt's potential problems at point guard, Tennessee will give themselves a chance to win. It's a huge game for Trae Golden on both ends of the floor to get his game back on the right track. And if Jeronne Maymon is back at or near 100%, can he return to the dominant form we saw in Maui?

Big game. 5:15 PM Saturday. ESPN