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Vols again short-handed against UK

Tennessee wasn’t completely healthy for its February game at Kentucky, and the Volunteers will be without a key component for the Wildcats’ return trip to Knoxville.

Brian Williams' bad back has forced him out of a big Sunday game against 20th-ranked Kentucky.

Leading scorers Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris will play on two good wheels against UK on Sunday afternoon in Thompson-Boling Arena — both were limited on sprained ankles at Rupp Arena — but UT senior center Brian Williams will miss his final home game because of an unspecified back injury.

Williams, who leads the Vols (18-12, 8-7 SEC) with 7.5 rebounds per game, will probably be missed against a group of Wildcats (21-8, 9-6) who crash the offensive glass with top-shelf wing talents.

The 6-foot-10 Bronx native is also the SEC’s best offensive rebounder, so his replacements have plenty of holes to fill if UT hopes to beat the Wildcats and secure the No. 2 East seed for next week’s conference tournament.

“His back is still tight, and he can’t go, so he is not going to play tomorrow,” Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. “(Kentucky) out-rebounded us by 10 up there, and they out-rebounded us with Brian. Obviously that’s going to be a huge factor. We’re going to have a stepped-up effort really from everybody, but particularly John Fields or Jeronne Maymon or Kenny Hall — those other guys that are going to wind up logging some of those minutes that Brian would have logged.”

The Vols won at South Carolina on Thursday without Williams in the lineup, but they were manhandled in the paint in the second half and finished with a 35-27 deficit. For perspective, Williams helped UT out-rebounded the Gamecocks 48-42 in Knoxville.

With Williams, the Vols had 34 defensive rebounds to South Carolina’s 17 offensive rebounds. Without Williams, the Vols had 19 defensive rebounds to South Carolina’s 20 defensive rebounds.

And, as Pearl noted, Kentucky out-rebounded UT 38-28 with Williams on the floor. In fact, Williams had nine of those 28 rebounds.

“I always knew (Williams’ significance),” said Harris, who at 6-foot-8 will probably play a few rotations at center against the Wildcats. “In the beginning of the season, he sat out a couple of practices with an ankle, I realized it then. We’re going to need him back, and we’re going to need him healthy.”

Junior guard Scotty Hopson, a former Kentucky high school star, is playing well heading into Sunday's home game against Kentucky.

Added senior guard Josh Bone: “We just have to be more aggressive in the paint and get it done as a team until he comes back. It’s different on the other end without his offensive rebounds, too.”

The Vols can still point to some areas of strength heading into tomorrow’s rematch, though.

Harris and Hopson, who limped through the game at Rupp, are now healthy and have been playing well. Harris scored a career-high 25 points at South Carolina, and Hopson added 24. Both were efficient, too, combining for 49 points on just 26 field goal attempts and 14-for-17 shooting from the free-throw line.

That wasn’t the case in Rupp. Hopson, who returned that night after missing the previous two games, had 11 points, four rebounds, two assists and two turnovers on 3-of-8 shooting in 24 minutes. Harris, playing his third game on six days on an ankle he’d sprained 10 days earlier, had 10 points, two rebounds, one assist and five turnovers on 3-of-9 shooting in 31 minutes.

“I’m a lot healthier, and I feel like I’m getting my bounce back and getting into a better rhythm,” Harris said. “It was just tough to lose the game up there. I wanted to go up there, whether I was 100 percent or not, and just win the game and do what I had to do for my team to win, and I couldn’t really do it. But I have another opportunity and another day to show what I can do and do what I have to do in order for this team to win.”

Said Hopson: “Me and Tobias are both close back to 100 percent. It’s good to get another crack at them and another opportunity — especially at home — when we’re feeling better. It’s good to get that opportunity. I think guys are ready for it now.”

Hopson, a McDonald’s All-American from Kentucky, has played probably the most consistently dominant stretch of his UT career since that loss in Rupp. He’s averaged 23.7 points per game since that night, shooting 52 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range

“That time I got to take off was really good for me,” Hopson said. “I got to sit back and evaluate the game and see some things out there I could do better, and how I could make myself more successful and the team more successful. The first game back was tough, obviously. I ain’t going to lie, I was a little timid on my ankle and didn’t want to do maybe as many things as I could.

With his sprained ankle "nearly 100 percent" healthy, freshman forward Tobias Harris is ready for Tennessee's rematch with Kentucky.

“But then after I got past that, you could see I just elevated my game from there on out.”

The Vols would like Hopson to find an even higher gear against his home-state Wildcats, and they could use one from Harris, too. Kentucky might not have a Hopson-caliber player at 2 guard, but Wildcats freshman Terrence Jones is a Harris-caliber player at the 4, and the Wildcats are arguably better than UT at every other position on the floor — especially with Williams on the bench in street clothes.

“Kentucky ... the matchups are tough,” Pearl said. “There are certain teams that I think we matchup well with, and certain teams that, by virtue of what they do, give us a hard time. And I think this is tough matchup for us. We know how to guard Kentucky, but whether we can is a different matter.

“Last year, as talented as they were, they had one weakness, and that was that they were very inconsistent as a perimeter shooting team. That was a real weakness. This year, their only weakness might be their depth. But other than that, they really have (a lot), and they’re playing really well right now, so I feel like we have to get elevated play tomorrow. We’ve got to do something that we’ve not been able to do in here, and that is have inspired play. The fact that it’s going to be Kentucky, and I think the fact that Kentucky outplayed us pretty good at their place, I think our guys are excited about at least the opportunity to get another chance at them.”

Every Vol to speak with reporters this week has mentioned the feelings they had walking out of Rupp.

“Everybody on the team, from the big men to the guards, has to be tougher this time,” Bone said. “Kentucky crashes the boards hard and sends a lot of people to the glass. They punked us last time, man. They just punked us.

“We have to find it in our hearts to go out there and play tougher this time.”

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