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USC basketball: Tennessee pregame

December 21, 2010 |  3:34 pm

Greetings and salutations! 

Coming to you from the NBA-esque Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., where tonight USC (6-5) and No. 18 Tennessee are scheduled to play some basketball. Of course, this game carries sentimental meaning beyond hoops, since it's a homecoming for USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, a former Volunteers coach. 

Mike Strange of the Knoxville News Sentinel has a nice story here recounting O'Neill's departure, which features a dandy of a photo from his days in Knoxville. (One aside: That headline is misleading. O'Neill said, as I wrote, that he would have stayed had he been more mature, but that he's fine where he is.)

But I suppose all of the stuff  above is merely a sidebar to how fans in these parts are still sore over that whole Lane Kiffin thing, you know, when the now-USC football coach upped and left after 13 games as the Tennessee football coach in 2009 without so much as a hug goodbye or a subsequent phone call.

Folks here didn't take too kindly to that. (This guy was especially scorned.)

How will they react tonight to O'Neill, who, like Kiffin, also spurned this school, though it happened more than a decade ago? And what about the USC men's basketball team, since waving USC cardinal and gold in front of Volunteers fans is akin to waving red in front of a raging bull? We'll see. 

But I digress...

Here are some facts and stats to get you ready before tipoff at 4 p.m. PST (television broadcast on Prime Ticket, radio broadcast on 1260): 

Points per game/opponents points per game
USC: 68.8/63.4
Tennessee: 75.7/67.1

Tennessee probable starters

Pos. No. Name Ht. Wt. Class Hometown PPG RPG

G 2 Melvin Goins 5-11 180 Sr. San Diego 9.3 3.1

G 23 Cameron Tatum 6-6 192 Jr. Lithonia, Ga. 11.6 3.8

G 32 Scotty Hopson 6-7 200 Jr. Hopkinsville, Ky. 16.1 3.7

F 12 Tobias Harris 6-8 226 Fr. Dix Hills, N.Y. 15.0 6.4

C 33 Brian Williams 6-10 272 Sr. Bronx, N.Y. 7.1 8.0

USC probable starters

Pos. No. Name Ht. Wt. Class Hometown PPG RPG

G 2 Jio Fontan 6-0 175 Jr. Paterson, N.J. 15.0 1.0

G 10 Maurice Jones 5-7 155 Fr. Saginaw, Mich 11.3 3.6

G 43 Marcus Simmons 6-6 220 Sr. Alexandria, La. 6.0 3.7

F 1 Alex Stepheson 6-10 250 Sr.* Los Angeles 9.5 8.3

F 5 Nikola Vucevic 6-10 260 Jr. Bar, Montenegro 16.2 10.4

* utilized redshirt season

USC player to watch: senior guard Donte Smith

The reserve spark plug has been sizzling lately, scoring a career-high 22 points, including 14 consecutive, in USC's win over Northern Arizona on Dec. 11 and then, at Kansas on Saturday, adding 20 more, including 17 in the second half.

In both games, he made five three-point shots. He's shooting 10 for 16 (63%) from distance in his last two games, pretty impressive. (See more here)

But in practice here Monday, Smith took a nasty spill when he was sandwiched between a Vucevic-and-Stepheson screen. He landed on the hardwood with a  thud and stayed down for a while.

Smith told me he bruised his lower back and his left elbow, but the right-hander said that although he's feeling sore, he should be OK for tonight's game.

USC no doubt needs his shooting to keep Tennessee from collapsing on Vucevic and Stepheson all game long.  

Tennessee player to watch: junior guard Hopson

Hopson leads Tennessee in scoring (16.1), but has struggled in the last two games, scoring 19 total points and misfiring on eight of nine three-point shots.

But in his game before that, he dropped 27 points in the Volunteers' upset of No. 3 Pittsburgh.

Now, if we consider where Tennessee is at this moment, you can expect Hopson to play well.

First, Tennessee won its first seven games before falling to Oakland and Charlotte, the first time the Volunteers have lost consecutive games to mid-major foes in Coach Bruce Pearl's six seasons.

That skid dropped the Volunteers from No. 7 to No. 18/19 in the polls, and another one would likely drop them out of the top 25 altogether.

Not only that, but a loss to USC would mark the Volunteers' first three-game losing streak under Pearl.

It all seems kind of jarring for a team that has knocked off two top-10 opponents this season, beating No. 7 Villanova and Pittsburgh.  

So, as such, expect all the Volunteers to play inspired basketball, especially Hopson. 

Key to the game for USC: three-point shot defense

Tennessee has shot just two for 27 from three-point range in its last three halves.

The shots aren't bad shots, either.

The Volunteers are just missing them, kind of like they did when USC beat Tennessee by 22 points in Los Angeles last season, the Vols shooting only two for 22 from distance in that upset.

O'Neill has already said his team is going to sag off Tennessee and force the Volunteers to make some shots.

If Tennessee does, the Trojans could be in trouble. If not, USC can pull the upset. 

Last ...  

-- USC has lost six straight road games dating back to last season.

-- USC has alternated two wins and two losses all season -- and the Trojans are coming off a two-point loss at No. 3 Kansas

-- USC has five players averaging double-digit points. 

-- USC junior guard  Fontan, who became eligible at Kansas, is in a situation  somewhat similar to that of former USC guard Mike Gerrity  last season. Gerrity, a transfer, became eligible for the Tennessee game, which USC won largely because of his  12 points and 10 assists. Pearl said afterward that the Volunteers hadn't scouted Gerrity much, and rightly so, since any film of him would have been more than a year old. That's slightly different with Fontan, who played on Saturday, but still, it's not as though an opposing coach can concretely define Fontan's role with the Trojans now, since Fontan himself has yet to define it.  

-Tennessee junior forward Renaldo Woolridge played high school basketball at North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, where he was a teammates of Stepheson and USC junior forward James Dunleavy

-- Tennessee is 40-3 at home against nonconference opponents under Pearl. 

-- Baxter Holmes in Knoxville, Tenn.