Knoxville, Tenn.-- (WVLT/SUBMITTED) True freshman point guard Darius Thompson is expected to make his second consecutive start for the Tennessee basketball team Saturday when the Volunteers face SEC rival Alabama at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (9:05 p.m. ET / 8:05 p.m. CT, ESPN2).
In his first conference start Wednesday, Thompson scored seven points, handed out seven assists and recorded a pair of steals as Tennessee (13-7, 4-3 SEC) downed Ole Miss.
That game was contested in the friendly confines of Knoxville’s Thompson-Boling Arena. Saturday’s environment won’t be nearly as supportive for Thompson and the Big Orange. Alabama (9-11, 3-4 SEC) is coming off a tough loss to arch-rival Auburn Thursday night, and UT has historically struggled to triumph in the Crimson Tide’s home gym (9-26 all-time).
Thompson’s matchup Saturday will be senior All-SEC performer Trevor Releford. The SEC’s active leader in career points (1,642) and steals (236), Releford also has the second-most assists of any active SEC player (351).
“He’s one of the better players in this league,” Thompson told reporters after Friday’s practice. “ So it’s going to be a good game, going against him. It will take a team effort to contain him.”
Releford averages a team-best 18.1 points per game this season and is shooting .396 from 3-point range. He has scored in double figures in 21 straight games, dating to last season.
Releford and his quick and athletic Alabama teammates are expected to apply some full-court pressure to the Vols after seeing how third-ranked Florida had success doing so against Tennessee last weekend in Gainesville, Fla. The Tide average 6.3 steals and force 12.0 turnovers per game in SEC action this season.
“Our focus is to) try not to get sped up,” Thompson said. “Just slow things down. Don’t let their press speed us up, and we should be good.”
When the Vols played at Alabama last season, the Tide forced 16 Tennessee turnovers, which led to 19 points. Tennessee led by four at halftime, but Alabama forced a frenetic pace in the final 20 minutes and swung the game in its favor.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin has studied that second-half and hopes to avoid the same pitfalls Saturday.
“Last year, we really didn’t take care of the ball down the stretch,” Martin said. “We turned the ball over against the press, so we have to do a good job against their press (Saturday). But also, (we need to stop them) in transition. I think they’ve scored 36 percent of their points against us in transition in the four games we’ve played against them (since I’ve been at Tennessee).
“So we’ve got do go a good job with our transition defense, and also take care of the ball.”
In addition to taking care of the ball, Martin also would like to see Thompson continue to look to score. Thompson’s seven points vs. Ole Miss provided encouragement in that department.
“He’s a guy that can score it,” Martin said. “He loves to pass the ball, but he can shoot it and he can score the ball. I think when he’s doing that, he’s a threat. Now you have five guys on the floor who are a threat to make plays. For him, he’s a threat whenever he has the ball in his hands. But when he’s scoring the ball, he’s an ever greater threat.’
ROAD RIMS HAVE NOT BEEN FRIENDLY
Tennessee hopes to find a level of accuracy from 3-point range Saturday that has been elusive in its previous three SEC road games.
In the Vols’ contests at LSU, Kentucky and Florida, Tennessee shot just .234 from beyond the 3-point line.
That stands in sharp contrast to UT’s shooting success at home. In their four SEC home games, the Vols are shooting the 3-ball at a .400 clip.
While Tennessee has made 6.5 3-pointers per game in home league games, they average just 3.7 on the road.
Overall this season, when the Vols shoot less than 30 percent from long range, they are 1-5 this season. The lone victory came against Xavier at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
LADY VOLS TO LEND SUPPORT
Tennessee’s men’s and women’s teams are both playing in Tuscaloosa this weekend.
After the men’s game Saturday night at Coleman Coliseum, the 10th-ranked Lady Vols face the Tide in Foster Auditorium Sunday at 4:35 p.m. ET / 3:35 p.m. CT. That game will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
The Lady Vols (17-4, 6-2 SEC) arrive in Tuscaloosa Saturday and are planning to attend the first half of the men’s game.
While it’s commonplace to see the Vols and Lady Vols cheering each other on at Thompson-Boling Arena, it’s rare for the teams to have an opportunity to attend each other’s games away from Rocky Top.
MARTIN RAISING AWARENESS FOR AUTISM
Cuonzo Martin is one of more than 80 men’s basketball coaches throughout the country who will be wearing the “Autism Speaks” lapel pin during Saturday’s game to support Autism Awareness Day.
The Autism Speaks initiative is the brainchild of Towson head coach Pat Skerry and Marshall head coach Tom Herrion, each of whom have sons on the autism spectrum. This past summer, the duo started the nationwide campaign to raise awareness about the disease.
They sent blue Autism Speaks puzzle-piece lapel pins to every coach that had a televised game on Feb. 1, in hopes that those coaches would wear the pins on their suit jackets during their game and bring awareness to the cause.
Alabama head coach Anthony Grant also will be wearing the pin Saturday.
For more information about Autism Speaks or Autism Awareness Day, visit 1tn.co/1beg2d2.
For the most up-to-date information about the Tennessee basketball program, visit UTsports.com/basketball and follow @Vol_Hoops on Twitter and Instagram.