Dec. 18, 2009
Tennessee had one of the worst stretches in team history when it was coached by Kevin O'Neill. The outlook for the Volunteers is certainly much brighter under Bruce Pearl.
After yet another strong defensive game, the ninth-ranked Volunteers face their former coach Saturday as they visit Southern California.
O'Neill was hired by the Trojans (4-4) on June 20 and is struggling in his latest effort to revive a coaching career that peaked with NCAA tournament appearances with Marquette in 1993 and '94.
He went to Tennessee the following season, going 36-47 in three seasons, and finished 30-56 with Northwestern from 1997-00. O'Neill was named interim coach at Arizona in November 2007 after Lute Olsen took a leave of absence that eventually led to his retirement, and the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Volunteers' best season under O'Neill was 1995-96, when they went 14-15. Prior to his stint, Tennessee hadn't finished with fewer than 15 wins in three straight seasons since a five-year stretch that ended in 1963.
Pearl, meanwhile, has led the Volunteers to NCAA tournament appearances in each of his first four seasons, and his current team could be one of his best.
Tennessee (8-1) has held two straight opponents under 60 points, beating Middle Tennessee 75-54 on Dec. 11 and Wyoming 77-58 on Tuesday.
Opponents are averaging 60.2 points and shooting 37.8 percent against the Volunteers.
"We've been holding teams to low shooting percentages. We've just got to keep it up, but it gives us confidence on the defensive end," guard Scotty Hopson said.
Hopson, who leads the Volunteers with 13.9 points per game, had 14 versus the Cowboys to bounce back from a one-point outing in his previous game. He's shooting 47.5 percent (19 for 40) from 3-point range.
Hopson helped Tennessee force 29 Wyoming turnovers. The Volunteers had 15 steals, falling two short of a season high.
"We can shut people down when we want to, and that's what we've got to continue to do all year long," swingman Tyler Smith told the Volunteers' official Web site.
Strong defense has been just about the only bright spot for the Trojans, who are allowing 58.1 points per game. USC is scoring an average of 58.9 and had to overcome 18 turnovers to beat Idaho State 59-53 on Dec. 11.
"I feel good any time I win at anything ... even mud-wrestling," O'Neill said. "It beats the alternative."
The Trojans set a team record with 13 blocks, three days after matching the previous record with 12 in a 51-36 win over Sacramento State. They have 33 blocks in the last four games after posting nine in their first four.
Alex Stepheson is coming off a strong effort for USC, posting 16 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. A 6-foot-9 transfer from North Carolina, Stepheson is getting back into a flow after sitting out last season.
"He's going to be a great player," said sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic, averaging team highs of 13.6 points and 10.8 rebounds.
This will be the first meeting between these teams since Dec. 30, 1997, when the Volunteers won 74-70 on the road to take a 4-1 series lead.