For whatever reason, the Vols are finding SEC West teams to be unusually hardnosed and physical this season. That was the case last Thursday against Auburn and last Saturday against Ole Miss ... and it will be the case Tuesday night against Bama.
"We just played the same kind of team," senior post Wayne Chism said, comparing Auburn to Ole Miss. "And now we're going to play another one Tuesday night. We've just got to bring the physicality to them because they're going to bring it to us."
Chism knows all about physicality after facing Auburn and Ole Miss back to back. The Tigers tried to pound him on the inside, then the Rebels used a virtually identical strategy.
"They did the same thing that Auburn did," Chism noted. "They bumped me and all this. They did a great job of that. Sometimes it (the official's call) went their way and sometimes it didn't."
Not all of the jostling was within the rules ... but not all of it was by the Rebels, either.
"I know I did a couple of cheap (shots) and they did a couple of cheap ones," Chism said, "but the refs let us play because this is the SEC. It's tough in there. We can't complain about the physical play because we knew it was coming."
The Ole Miss game was especially taxing for Chism because he played 41 of the overtime outing's 45 minutes. Although he had never played so many minutes before, he seemed oblivious to fatigue.
"I actually didn't feel it because I kept my mindset of 'We've got to fight this game' because we knew it was going to come down to the wire," he recalled. "We kept fighting and the game kept getting closer and closer."
The game "kept getting closer and closer" because the Vols fell way behind for the second outing in a row. They trailed Auburn 34-22 before storming back to win 81-55. They trailed Ole Miss by 12 twice (18-6 and 52-40) before clawing back to win 71-69 in overtime.
It was almost as if the Vols needed a slap upside the head to get them going each time.
"We had to take a punch again early against these guys," Chism said of the Rebels. "We took a punch against Auburn early, and we came back and did a great job."
So why is Tennessee suddenly stumbling out of the starting gate?
"It's hard to start off good," Chism said, "because a lot of teams are like: 'They're short of players. Let's get off to a great start. We think we can knock 'em down.' But this team has a lot of heart and we're doing a lot of good things out there."
Certainly, Chism is doing a lot of good things. He led the Vols in points (26) and rebounds (12) against the Rebels. He also hit back-to-back 3-pointers to ignite the late rally that pushed the game into overtime.
"I felt good about the first 3 I shot," he recalled. "I knew the second time they was trying to switch their defense and I knew I could catch them sleeping. Josh (Bone) did a great job of delivering the pass right on time, and I made the shot."
Because he is 6-9 and 245 pounds, Chism looks out of place jacking up 3-pointers. Fans used to groan when he'd unload from there but they've stopped now that he's hitting 39 percent from behind the arc this season.
"I had to make 'em believe, and they did a great job of believing in me," Chism said, grinning broadly. "I really can't complain about it. I'm glad I made the 3-balls, and I'm glad the fans are behind me when I shoot."
Head coach Bruce Pearl was glad Chism made those 3-balls, too. Otherwise, Tennessee would've lost to Ole Miss. The Vol coach was so impressed with Chism's play that he called him "the best player on the floor."
Asked for his reaction, Chism grinned softly before responding:
"I guess he said the right thing. I feel like I did a great job. I feel good about how I played, and I'm glad we came out with a win."