There are no shortage of storylines Tuesday night: Kevin O'Neill returns to Knoxville, the highly-regarded transfer Jio Fontan makes his second appearance of the season and USC looks to rebound from its devastating two-point road loss to Kansas. For the time being, let's start with O'Neill. Per Pedro Moura of ESPNLA:
While Kiffin left in January to replace Pete Carroll and take his "dream job" at USC, O'Neill fled UT for Northwestern in 1997 after a feud with his athletic director.
At 4 p.m. PT today, O'Neill returns to Knoxville for the first time since his departure, but it doesn't exactly sound like it's the first thing on his mind -- "I don't have any feelings one way or another," he said last week, before admitting that he felt he had improved the program dramatically during his three years there -- considering the circumstances.
Those circumstances? O'Neill's team lost in heartbreaking fashion on the road to Kansas on Saturday and now faces the prospect of heading back to Los Angeles with a 0-2 road trip, 6-6 overall record and little-to-no qualifications for an NCAA Tournament bid.
On paper, at least, it would appear as if the Trojans have more than a puncher's chance to knock off the No. 18 Volunteers. For one, Kevin O'Neill's team upended Tennessee a year ago in Los Angeles by 22 points, and in recent weeks, UT has had its fair share of difficulties. While posting an impressive seven-point victory at No. 3 Pittsburgh on Dec. 11, then-rising to No. 7 in the Associated Press rankings, Tennessee has since lost to Oakland (Mich.) 89-82 and to Charlotte 49-48.
Conversely, USC has won two out of its last three games, including a home upset of then-No. 19 Texas. In that span, USC has seen strong play in the interior, namely Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic, but all the more surprising, from senior guard Donte Smith. Per Baxter Holmes of the Los Angeles Times:
During practice last week, Smith, who was coming off a career-high 22 points in USC's win against Northern Arizona on Nov. 11, couldn't miss.
"Lucky," Vucevic said after Smith buried a deep three-pointer in his face.
"'Luck?'" O'Neill asked. "Well, all that 'luck' won us the game the other night."
Against Kansas, Smith's "lucky" streak continued as he hit five more three-point jumpers.
In his last two games, he has shot 10 for 16 (63%) from distance.
But if USC intends to notch another upset win over Tennessee, it will need contribution from its backcourt tandem - Bryce Jones and Maurice Jones. Against Kansas, both were held scoreless; the second time this year Maurice Jones was held scoreless.
The game will be televised at 4 p.m. PST on Fox Sports Prime Ticket, so if you're going to be watching, feel free to post below.