Preview: Tennessee vs. Auburn, Bruce Pearl returns to Knoxville

Bruce Pearl will return to Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday for the first time since he was fired by Tennessee in March 2011 due to NCAA recruiting violations. Pearl’s new team, the Auburn Tigers will take on Donnie Tyndall and the Vols.

Bruce Pearl will return to Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday for the first time since he was fired by Tennessee in March 2011 due to NCAA recruiting violations. Pearl’s new team, the Auburn Tigers will take on Donnie Tyndall and the Vols.

It is no secret that Pearl’s return is the central focus of this match-up. Pearl has long been admired by most Tennessee fans – especially the student body. Many Vol fans wanted Pearl back before Cuonzo Martin left for the Cal job. In fact, over 30,000 of them signed a petition stating as much. The love for Pearl is understandable. He put Tennessee Basketball back on the map and made it a force that nobody in the SEC wanted a part of.

Now Tennessee has a new coach, Donnie Tyndall. Despite NCAA trouble of his own, Tyndall has revitalized the UT fan base after the mixed feelings of Cuonzo Martin’s departure. Tyndall has the Vols off to a better start than most Vol fans could have ever thought possible. Despite back-to-back SEC losses to Texas A&M and Arkansas, Tennessee is still in the hunt for a high seed in the SEC tournament.

This game is about more than the coaches. It is about Tennessee’s run at the NCAA tournament. With a loss, Tennessee would lose its third SEC game at home and be in jeopardy of falling to the bottom of league standings.

The Vols’ keys to a victory on Saturday are much more complex than simply fighting off the crowd’s adoration with Pearl.

First of all, they need Josh Richardson to have a fast start in order to get the offense going early. Tennessee’s home struggles have all stemmed from a slow start. Richardson is the most efficient scorer on the team. Where he goes, the team typically follows and feeds off his energy. Richardson is the team’s leading scorer, averaging nearly 16 points a game.

But Richardson can’t do it all alone. Someone has to step up and help offensively. Kevin Punter has shown signs of greatness at times. Robert Hubbs III and Armani Moore have also improved. Usually, however, it isn’t the same player who gets hot game-to-game. Consistency is key for Tennessee making it down the stretch.

Tennessee needs to come out of the gate, guns blazing, to win this one. When the Vols get out to a fast start and play with energy, good things happen – such as wins over Arkansas, Kansas State and Butler. If Tennessee can avoid starting flat, they have a chance to secure a solid home win to further their case on the NCAA bubble watch.

Arguably, the Vols’ most important key to a victory will be finding a way to shut down Auburn’s big three. The group of KT Harrell, Antoine Mason and Cinmeon Bowers account for over half of Auburn’s usual scoring. All three players are averaging double-digits in scoring for the season.

Tennessee must handle Bowers inside and control Harrell from the three-point line. If they do, they’ll have a great shot at knocking off Auburn.

And some guy that used to coach here.

Edited by Cody McClure