KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – This isn’t the opponent or the venue where college basketball teams go to end losing streaks.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs, saddled with a three-game losing streak, tonight will try to do something that the past 37 visitors to the University of Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena have failed to do: Leave with a win.
The 15th-ranked Volunteers (9-3) haven’t lost at home since March 1, 2006. Only Notre Dame’s 44-game home winning streak is longer than Tennessee’s. The Volunteers are 28-0 in non-conference home games under head coach Bruce Pearl. There will be nearly 21,000 orange-clad fans in the stands and a Volunteers team that is still stinging from an 83-74 loss to Gonzaga about five weeks ago in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic.
It’s a daunting challenge, but one the Bulldogs (8-4) are trying to embrace.
“With the way we’ve been playing, not a lot of people think we’re going to go down there and perform well,” sophomore guard Steven Gray said. “We beat them once. We know it’s going to be tough to do it again at their place, but I think we’re ready to go match their intensity and their effort. It’s a great opportunity to get back on track.”
That’s where the Bulldogs were when they last saw the Volunteers. Gonzaga, despite losing the boards 50-26, dominated in nearly every other area, building an 18-point lead and holding off a late Tennessee rally in Orlando, Fla.
“I thought we had a good mentality with how we attacked their pressure and I thought for the most part we defended the right way and we were doing the things we talk to our guys about doing,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “And that’s slipped, quite frankly, the last couple games.
“And then you make shots. Life comes a lot easier if guys make shots and make plays. That’s probably what we’ve been missing the most in the last couple games.”
Tennessee has had its own issues. The Volunteers have been slowed by poor starts (sound familiar?) and struggled on defense, often against point guards. Kansas burned the Volunteers for 92 points on 51.5 percent shooting Saturday. Gonzaga made 51.9 percent from the floor against Tennessee earlier this season.
“I was disappointed with the way we played against Kansas, and particularly the starts that we’ve had in a number of our key games,” Pearl said. “We’ve battled back against a few of those (teams), but obviously that’s something we have to address.”
The Volunteers have quality wins over Georgetown at the Old Spice and Big East power Marquette. They’ve lost to Gonzaga, Temple and Kansas.
“They’re going to play hard and they have athletes,” senior wing Micah Downs said. “You don’t win too many games getting beat on the boards by that much, so we’ve been focusing on that.”
Junior Tyler Smith, who recorded the first triple-double in the 100-year history of Tennessee basketball earlier this season, averages 17.3 points and 5.9 rebounds. Junior center Wayne Chism, who had a verbal exchange with Gonzaga’s Demetri Goodson in the first meeting, chips in 12.3 points and 8.5 boards. In the past four games, Chism is averaging 16.8 points and 11.5 rebounds.
“It’s just about playing tough and physical and not letting guys push us around,” said Bulldogs senior guard Jeremy Pargo, who had 10 points and seven assists against the Vols and helped seal the win with a late dunk.