The Vols' head man met with the media earlier today to promote his team's first-and second-round games in the Preseason NIT. The Big Orange will meet Belmont Tuesday at 9:30, then face either Missouri State or Arkansas State Wednesday at 7. Both games will be played at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Fans may recall that Belmont pushed Tennessee to the limit on two previous visits to Knoxville. The Bruins gave Pearl quite a scare before bowing 79-77 on Dec. 16, 2008. They also gave Buzz Peterson some anxious moments before losing 77-68 on Dec. 20, 2004. Belmont is coached by Rick Byrd, a UT grad who played under the legendary Ray Mears. Byrd has guided his team to three of the last five Atlantic Sun Conference titles and five postseason bids in the past six years.
"Rick Byrd does a tremendous job," Pearl said. "He's one of those guys that's on everybody's list as one of the best coaches in the country that nobody's heard about. We've seen his team in action. A couple of years ago they almost came in here and beat us.
"They're always outstanding defensively - very, very solid. And they shoot and make more 3s than most teams do. As a result, they're very dangerous. They're deep, they're physical and they're a really solid bunch.... We expect a good go from a team that has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament."
Having guided a mid-major program at Wisconsin-Milwaukee before taking the UT reins five years ago, Pearl knows that mid-majors such as Belmont, Missouri State and Arkansas State view each game against high-major foes as a golden opportunity to enhance their program's reputation. And he knows these teams would love nothing better than to knock off a Tennessee team that is ranked No. 24 nationally.
"If they win their conference tournaments, then they're going to go to the NCAA Tournament," Pearl said. "But if they don't ... they've got to have a resume where there's enough (quality) wins where they can get an at-large bid. So, those three teams are playing for their NCAA Tournament lives on Nov. 16."
Tennessee is coming off an 82-62 defeat of Chattanooga in which the Vols shut down the Moccasins early on offense and frustrated them. Pearl is concerned that Belmont may use the same formula to frustrate his team.
"Belmont is a really good defensive team, and they will make it harder for us to score than Chattanooga did," the Vol coach said. "What will that do to us? How much will that rattle our cages?"
Tennessee already had its cage rattled during the preseason, suffering a stunning 79-64 exhibition loss to Div. II Indianapolis one week ago. With their pride clearly wounded, the Vols have been listening better and working harder ever since.
"They were more attentive last week, after the loss," Pearl conceded.
It showed. The Vols looked much more determined and focused in the regular-season opener vs. Chattanooga.
"We got a lot better after the Indianapolis game," Pearl acknowledged. "We handled adversity well after the game. We didn't handle it well during the game but after the game we handled it well. We were accountable. We practiced well and we played better against Chattanooga."
Still, Tennessee may need to find an even higher gear in order to prevail on Tuesday night.
"We'll have to play better Tuesday to beat Belmont than we did Friday to beat Chattanooga," Pearl said. "But I think we've made progress."
How much progress? The coach figures fans can judge for themselves. That's why he's inviting 20,000 of them out for a cozy get-together Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.