Knoxville, TN - Bruce Pearl felt Tyler Smith's latest performance was an inspiration to the rest of the Tennessee team.
The coach of the No. 24 Volunteers hopes the star forward can inspire his teammates to avoid rare consecutive home losses when they face SEC rival Kentucky on Tuesday night.
Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sportsbook.com have made the Tennessee -6 point spread favorites for Tuesday’s game against the Kentucky. Current College Basketball Public Betting Information shows that 51% of more than 254 bets for this game have been placed on the Tennessee -6.
Despite spending two days on crutches after suffering a bruised left knee, the 6-foot-7 Smith convinced Pearl he could play and finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds in Tennessee's 86-77 league-opening victory at Georgia on Saturday. Smith overcame the injury he suffered in an 89-79 overtime loss to Gonzaga on Wednesday that snapped a school-record 37-game winning streak for the Vols (10-4, 1-0) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Pearl understood the importance of Smith's effort in rallying his team from a 10-point deficit to a earn a key victory.
"The message is we don't win the game without him,'' Pearl said of Smith, a junior who's averaging a team-leading 17.7 points and 4.1 assists with 6.4 rebounds. "The message is, if he's not the best player in the SEC, he's the best competitor. Tyler is the best competitor and he absolutely willed this basketball team to win.''
While its overall home streak has ended, Tennessee will try for its 17th consecutive SEC home victory. The last loss came 80-78 to Kentucky on March 1, 2006. That game followed a loss to Arkansas, marking the last time the Vols dropped consecutive home games.
Though the Wildcats (12-4, 1-0) are 0-3 versus ranked opponents this season, these teams have split the last two season series, with the home team winning every contest. Kentucky had won four in a row at Thompson-Boling prior to 2006-07.
"They have improved a great deal," Pearl said of the Wildcats. "Remember: Kentucky is still Kentucky."
Tennessee still has Smith, who will try to better his past performances against Kentucky after managing 20 total points on 34.8 percent shooting in two games versus the Wildcats last season.
Despite that underwhelming track record, Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie has reason to be fearful of Smith.
"He is a great player because he is a very hard matchup," Gillispie said. "His real game begins when the shot goes up because he is just a warrior. He is a great offensive and defensive player and is great in transition. He does all the little things that make a player great."
Smith's teammate Wayne Chism has been great of late, averaging 15.5 points with 12.3 rebounds in his last four games.
Kentucky, meanwhile, boasts a couple of the SEC's top players in guard Jodie Meeks and forward Patrick Patterson.
Meeks, who leads the SEC with 24.2 points per game, had 21 in the Wildcats' 70-60 home win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. The junior guard is averaging 28.0 points on 50 percent shooting in his last six games.
"As hard as Jodie is playing, I don't see too many bad plays," Gillispie said of Meeks, who is averaging just 11.3 points in three career games versus the Vols.
The 6-10 Patterson, meanwhile, is averaging 18.9 points and 9.3 rebounds on the season. The sophomore had 20 points in his only game against Tennessee last season, a 72-66 home victory over the then-No. 3 Vols on Jan. 22.
Posted: 1/12/09 3:48AM ET