FILE PHOTO: RICHARD OLIVEIRA SOENS/THE HOYA Sophomore guard Markel Starks (right) led all scorers with 18 points Saturday afternoon.
Sophomore guard Markel Starks (right) led all scorers with 18 points Saturday afternoon.

Hoya fans have a new shade of orange to hate — for one night, at least.

The Georgetown faithful will get a much-needed respite from conference realignment drama this evening when Tennessee (4-1) visits the Verizon Center to open Friday’s SEC-Big East Challenge slate.

The No. 20 Blue and Gray (4-1) will be the clear favorites going into tonight’s contest largely based on their impressive showing at the Legends Classic last week. At Brooklyn’s brand-new Barclays Center, the Hoyasdismantled then-No. 11 UCLA and gave No. 1 Indiana a run for its money, in the process announcing their presence as a national power in front of millions of viewers.

The resulting media adoration lasted just long enough for most fans to forgive a lackluster first half against Mount St. Mary’s last weekend. Now, though, the Blue and Gray are in the spotlight again, this time defending a spot in the national rankings.

The first marquee opponent to challenge the Hoyas on their home turf this season, the Volunteers are easily the toughest nonconference team Georgetown has played host to since a win over Memphis in December 2011.

Second-year Head Coach Cuonzo Martin’s squad, while unranked nationally, was picked to finish fourth in a tough SEC race, behind current national No. 8 Kentucky, No. 7 Florida and No. 16 Missouri. Additionally, three Vols made the Coaches’ all-SEC teams at the beginning of the season, and sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes was named to the preseason Naismith Trophy Watch List.

Tennessee thus far lacks any high-profile wins over major-conference opponents, but the Vols haven’t slipped up, either: Their lone loss came at the hands of a talented Oklahoma State team that vaulted to No. 15 in the national rankings a few days later.

“They’re an experienced team at every position,” Head Coach John Thompson III said of Tennessee. “They can get up and down, they can settle into a halfcourt game and, perhaps most importantly, they can play defense.”

The Blue and Gray may have caught a break this week, however: Redshirt senior forward Jeronne Maymon is expected to miss his sixth straight game after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

Still, to avoid an upset on its home court, Georgetown’s primary goal will be to play smart on defense and to keep the Vols off the charity stripe, where they average over 25 attempts per game this year. This might seem like an obvious strategy, but it’s something the otherwise disciplined Hoyas have struggled with thus far, especially late in games.

Indiana, for example, only pulled away in the Legends Classic title game when Georgetown went on a fouling spree in the overtime period. Duquesne, likewise, kept a potential blowout within single digits — and even threatened an upset — largely due to Georgetown’s tendency to stop the clock with inexplicable late-game fouls.

Martin will likely look to feed Stokes on the early and often, and Georgetown’s lack of frontcourt depth makes any potential foul trouble for Hopkins and Lubick a potential gamebreaker for Tennessee. Sophomore forwards Otto Porter and Greg Whittington have stepped up on the boards, but the lack of a big body down low could hurt the Hoyas.

“We’ve just got to play good defense,” Porter said. “We’ve played against big guys before — I think we can defend.”

The Vols don’t have one obvious weakness that Thompson III can attempt to exploit, so look for the Hoyas to play passing lanes and attempt to control the pace of the game against a Vols squad that likes to push the ball in transition.

Tennessee poses a formidable challenge for Georgetown, but tonight’s game represents a chance for Thompson III and the Hoyas to cement their reputation as an elite team in front of what’s sure to be a raucous Verizon Center — as well as a major national TV audience.

Tipoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

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