Step 1: Beat LSU
Step 2: Beat Florida
With a modest 12-6 overall record, the Vols are in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in Pearl's tenure. They already suffered one SEC loss on their home floor (Jan. 13 vs. Kentucky) and cannot afford another if they are to remain in contention for the league title. Thus, this week's games against visiting LSU (Wednesday night) and Florida (Saturday night) loom large.
“Obviously, we're going to have to be in the race for the SEC championship to make the NCAA Tournament,” Pearl said. “How many (SEC teams) are going to go?
“Four or five. Which four or five? Kentucky and Florida are on their way. Somebody out West ... maybe more than that (from the other division). We've got to be in the race to be in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament spot.
“That said, our strength of schedule is No. 3 and our RPI is No. 2. We're in position (to earn an NCAA Tournament bid).”
The Vols won't stay in that position long, however, if they drop both of this week's home games. Even dropping one of the two could be devastating to their hopes of making The Big Dance in March.
“You don't have to be a mathematician or a brain surgeon to figure out how important this week is,” Pearl conceded. “Just look at the top of the standings in the SEC and you'll see Florida (2nd in the Eastern Division) and LSU (2nd in the Western Division) right there. It's a great opportunity for us this week to stay in the race and defend our SEC championship.”
Tennessee's 12-6 overall record includes a 3-1 SEC mark. LSU brings a 15-4 overall record and a 3-1 league record into Wednesday night's game, set for an 8 o'clock tipoff. The Tigers, as usual, have a lot of talent on their roster.
“LSU is very talented, very athletic,” Pearl said. “They're probably one of the oldest teams in the SEC. They've got a couple of guys that played on the Final Four team in Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple.”
LSU always seems to be a strong defensive team, and this year is no different. Chris Johnson (6-11, 210) and Tasmin Mitchell (6-7, 235) are good shot-blockers, and Garrett Temple (6-6, 190) is an outstanding perimeter defender.
“Defensively, they make your points in the paint even more challenging because of how long they are and how physical they are,” Pearl said. “And, obviously, points in the paint are all the points we're getting, so we'll have to figure out a way to get some more points from the perimeter to open things up on the inside.”
Although there's a lot of basketball still to be played, Wednesday night's winner will take a big step toward contending for its division title. Both the Vols and the Tigers would like to take that step.
“Like us, they're positioned to make a run,” Pearl said. “That's why this is going to be a tremendous clash of two teams who are competing for the championship.”