Sure enough, Pearl got a little help from his "friends." Alabama beat Georgia and Florida beat Vanderbilt on Saturday, paving the way for Pearl's Tennessee Vols to rise from fifth place to second place in the East and earn a first-round bye in the upcoming SEC Tournament. To seal the deal, however, they must defeat Kentucky today at 12:06 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Florida (13-3 in SEC play) already clinched the East title and the division's No. 1 seed for the league tournament. Beating the Big Blue will enable Tennessee to finish 9-7 in SEC play, tying Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Georgia for second place. The Vols would be the East's No. 2 seed, however, by virtue of having a 4-2 record against the other runnersup. Kentucky would be 3-3, Vanderbilt 3-3 and Georgia 2-4.
So, having gotten a little help from his friends, Pearl can lock up a coveted first-round bye by avenging a 73-61 loss his team suffered at Lexington on Feb. 8. That will be no easy task, even though Kentucky is 1-6 in SEC road games. The Vols have done a poor job defending their home floor, going just 10-7 at TBA this season.
"Kentucky comes in here obviously with a very talented team," Pearl said this week. "We've lost seven games at home and don't seem to take advantage of what has been tremendous home crowd support."
One of the keys today will be 3-point shooting. Kentucky shoots a dazzling 39.9 percent from beyond the arc to lead the SEC in that category. Conversely, Tennessee makes just 31.4 percent and ranks 11th among the 12 league teams.
The Vols' 3-point shooting has been so bad lately that Mississippi State literally dared them to unload from behind the arc eight days ago. Tennessee's players took the dare, made just 5 of 21 attempts and lost 70-69.
"Our guys were open because Mississippi State was backed off of them," Pearl conceded.
It's a safe bet Kentucky will back off and dare Tennessee to fire 3-pointers today. That means the Vols must be disciplined - working for a better shot, then taking the 3 only if it proves to be the best option available.
"I'm all about guys taking open shots," Pearl said, "but you've got to have a level of accountability to make some of those shots to make the defense pay. If they're going to disrespect you and back off, make 'em pay."
GAME NOTES: Kentucky brings a 21-8 overall record, a 9-6 SEC record and a No. 20 national ranking into today's game. Tennessee brings an 18-12 overall record and an 8-7 SEC mark.... The game will be nationally televised by CBS.... UT will be observing "Senior Day" with seniors Brian Williams, Melvin Goins, Steven Pearl, Josh Bone, John Fields and Michael Hubert making their final home appearance. Williams will be unable to play due to lingering back problems.... Former Vol Allan Houston will have his No. 20 jersey retired at halftime.... Kentucky is expected to start 6-3 freshman Brandon Knight (17.7 points, 4.1 assists per game), 6-7 junior Darius Miller (10.9 points), 6-6 junior DeAndre Liggins (9.4 points), 6-8 freshman Terrence Jones (17.2 points, 9.1 rebounds) and 6-10 senior Josh Harrellson (6.7 points, 8.9 rebounds).... Pearl and UK head man John Calipari have almost identical records in 19 years of coaching. Pearl is 461-142, Calipari 459-149. Calipari holds a 5-3 edge in head-to-head meetings.