By Jimmy Hyams
When Bruce Pearl was in his heyday as Tennessee’s coach, Thompson-Boling Arena didn’t host a game.
It hosted an event.
Tennessee’s men’s basketball is back to the “event’’ status.
And the event Saturday afternoon was a knockout – a one-sided, dominating, almost comically easy victory over nemesis Georgia, 96-50, before a raucous sellout crowd of 21,678
Georgia had won five of its last six games, and blew a 19-point lead against a ranked Arizona State team. The Bulldogs had won five of the last six against Tennessee.
But Tom Crean’s first club in Athens was no match for the nation’s third-ranked team.
“It was uncharacteristic for us to be that uncompetitive,’’ Crean said post-game.
“Our effort level had a lot to do with how successful they were today.’’
Asked if the sellout crowd at TBA impacted his team, Crean deflected that notion.
“I don’t think the crowd had anything to do with how slow we were running or how lethargic we were,’’ he said. “We ran like we were wearing 50-pouind weights on our shoulders.’’
They shot like they were weighing 50-pound weights as well. The Bulldogs missed their first 14 three-point attempts and finished one of 20 beyond the arc. Georgia hit 32.2 percent from the field overall.
Meanwhile, the Vols shot 53.1 percent from the field and four starters were a combined 20 of 34. When UT took an 80-35 lead in the second half, Georgia had missed all 14 three-point tries while Tennessee was six of 12.
As you might expect, UT’s Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield were sharp, scoring 18 each. Kyle Alexander had 12 points and a career-high 14 points.
“That’s as good as he’s been,’’ coach Rick Barnes said of his senior center.
But that trio wasn’t the story.
The story was two-fold.
Jordan Bowden snapped out of a slump to score a game-high 20 points on 8 of 13 shooting after not hitting a field goal in his last two games.
And Lamonte Turner played for the first time since Nov. 28 due to a shoulder injury. The SEC’s co-sixth man of the year last year had missed six consecutive games.
“We can’t get to our full potential without (Turner),’’ Barnes said.
Turner wasn’t effective. In fact, he looked rusty. His first three-point attempt was an air ball, which came, he said as he hiccupped.
Turner entered the game to a standing ovation. In 15 minutes, Turner had six points, two assists and one rebound.
Turner said he expects to play in each game the rest of the season, unless he reinjures the problematic shoulder.
Bowden, who hasn’t shot as well this year as last year, got going after making a couple of mid-range jumpers – and enduring a lecture from Barnes, who accused Bowden of turning down a couple of shots.
“If you’re not going to play the way you practice,’’ Barnes told Bowden, “we’re not going to play you.’’
Bowden got the message, and responded.
In addition to the shooting disparity, Tennessee had a 25-3 edge in points off turnovers, had assists on 25 of 34 baskets and outscored Georgia’s bench 37-19, thanks mainly to Bowden.
This was a much better start to SEC play than a year ago, when the Vols opened 0-2 before going on a run to claim the SEC co-championship.
Interestingly, since the SEC expanded in 1992, the Vols have not started conference play better than 3-0. The Vols won their first three games in 2010, 2008 and 2001.
Tennessee’s best SEC start was 8-0 done twice – in 1982 and 1977.
It’s unlikely the Vols will start 8-0 this season, but don’t rule it out.
This team is on a mission.
And each home game has become an event.