While most Trojan fans right now are likely hung up on the December 26th Emerald Bowl against Boston College and SI.com's exclusion of Matt Leinart and Troy Polamalu from their All-Decade team, it is important to note that the USC men's basketball team (4-4) faces top ten ranked Tennessee this Saturday at the Galen Center. After being embarrassed on the road by two notable ranked teams, Texas and Georgia Tech, Saturday's matchup with the Volunteers should provide an interesting test for the Trojans, who are coming off two solid home victories over Sacramento State and Idaho State.
So, with the game just under two days away, I had the chance to ask Will Shelton, of Rocky Top Talk, some questions about the current Tennessee team and Saturday's upcoming contest
1.) Tell us how confident most Tennessee fans are regarding this year team, especially after their 8-1 start (the only loss was to Purdue by one point in the Virgin Islands).
I think most fans are excited about the potential with this team - the vast majority of these guys played together last year on the team that was bounced in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, but with a year of growth and greater consistency, we think the talent is there for this team to get into the second weekend and beyond. The Vols have just enough talent with their best players, combined with a ton of depth (currently using an 11 man rotation), that this team is capable of hurting the opposition in so many different ways. We won't know for sure for another week or so, when the Vols play Memphis, Kansas, and then start the SEC season, but we like where we are right now.
2.) This is now year 5 of the Bruce Pearl era so the folks in Knoxville have certainly grown more accustomed to the former UW-Milwaukee head coach. What about this Tennessee team is distinctly Pearl-like?
The tempo is definitely where Pearl wants it - the Vols are always at the top of the SEC in scoring, and so far it's been no different this year, averaging 84 points per game. Tennessee will utilize a full court press some, and Pearl's teams are always great at defending the inbounds pass. All of those qualities are there. The Vols have been more disciplined in shooting the three this year; it remains to be seen if this team can rely on the three to help them win games like Pearl's first Tennessee teams did.
3.) How does UT matchup against the Trojans' big men Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic?
The Vols will start with seniors Tyler Smith (6'7") and Wayne Chism (6'9") in the post; Chism is a very good post defender and leads the team in rebounds and blocked shots. Brian Williams (6'10" and a banger at 278 lbs) has also played a lot of minutes. Chism is very prone to early foul trouble; if the Trojans can get him on the bench early, their chances for inside success increase dramatically.
4.) So far this season the Trojans have struggled immensely on offense, but have proven to be quite effective on the defensive end. What are their chances of slowing down 6'7" forward Tyler Smith, who is regarded by many as the Vols' top offensive player while averaging 12.2 points and 4.6 assists.
The assists stat you mentioned is one of the biggest signs that Tyler has become a complete player - he's dangerous in almost every way offensively, capable of knocking down the outside shot, slashing to the hole, scoring from the post, getting to the free throw line...but at times he also operates like a point guard and distributes very well to his teammates. Smith hasn't really gone off in a game this season, in part because the Vols are so deep - if you make a concentrated effort to stop Tyler, the Vols can hurt you inside with Chism, or outside with Scotty Hopson or Cameron Tatum. Having said that, I watched Kevin O'Neill put on some defensive clinics in Knoxville back in the mid-90s, he'll come up with a great gameplan to take away what he perceives to be the Vols' biggest strength. Tyler and Wayne are almost always going to get theirs - the bigger question is how well USC can take away the Vols' other options. If the Trojans make the Vols play their pace, the odds of taking away the other options goes up.
5.) How much does Bruce Pearl and Tennessee care about this game? Do they view as just another non-conference game, or is it an opportunity to establish a greater presence on the west coast and California in terms of recruiting?
Since O'Neill coached the Vols from 94-97, it adds an extra level of interest to this game, even though that was long before Pearl or any of these players came to Knoxville. Tennessee does have a contributor from California in sophomore Renaldo Woolridge (Orlando's son), but most recently the Vols have been working on the Atlanta and NYC areas in recruiting the most. This is Tennessee's first true road game, after playing four neutral site games, and last year the Vols really struggled in the non-conference road games, getting blown out at Temple and giving up 92 points at Kansas. We want to see this team go into another team's building and get it done sooner instead of later.
6.) What is your prediction for Saturday's contest?
I think this game will be similar to the USC/Texas game, and several that the Vols have played this year: close in the first half, with the Vols depth making a difference in the second half. If Tennessee pushes the lead in the second half, I'm not sure if USC has enough firepower to fight their way back. I have great respect for Kevin O'Neill and the defense his teams play, I just think Tennessee has too much quantity and quality this time around. I like the Vols 67-60.