The 19th-ranked Vols thought last week was tough, and they were right. On Wednesday they hosted a Georgia team that trounced them by 15 points (78-63) three weeks earlier in Athens. On Saturday they faced South Carolina on the same floor where the Gamecocks handed Kentucky its only loss of the season.
Although Tennessee won both games, that clearly was a rugged week. Still, it was a cake walk compared to the one coming up. On Tuesday the Vols visit a Florida team that is 19-8 and coming off a huge SEC road win at Ole Miss. On Saturday the Vols host afore-mentioned Kentucky, which is 26-1 and ranked No. 2 nationally.
"We've obviously got two great opponents coming up - two NCAA Tournament teams," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said. "We go down to Florida late in the year with a lot at stake for both clubs."
The Gators appeared headed for the National Invitation Tournament after back-to-back losses at South Carolina (77-71) on Feb. 10 and at home to Xavier (76-64) on Feb. 13 dropped them to 17-8 overall and 6-4 in SEC play. They bounced back to beat Auburn last Thursday and Ole Miss on Saturday, however, and now appear to have some momentum.
"It seems like Florida's really picked it up," Pearl said, adding that Billy Donovan's club is "playing a lot better ... playing with a great sense of urgency. They had two terrific wins last week."
Whereas Florida played very well last week, Kentucky played superbly last week. The Wildcats handed Mississippi State its first SEC home loss on Tuesday, then handed No. 17 Vanderbilt its first SEC home loss on Saturday.
"To go on the road and win close games at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt is what champions are made of," Pearl said.
The Vols' head man likes to refer to challenges as "opportunities," so the chance to knock off Florida and Kentucky this week qualifies as a couple of golden opportunities.
"The good thing from our standpoint is the quality of the opponents," Pearl said. "The challenging thing is that they'll expose our weaknesses and they'll be challenging teams to beat."
Still, this week shapes up as a win/win situation for Tennessee. If the Vols bow at Florida and at home to Kentucky - as expected - they probably will lose no ground in terms of their RPI. Conversely, if the Vols should win both games, their RPI could skyrocket, perhaps putting them in line for a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
As Pearl put it: "Because they're NCAA Tournament teams, these are the games that get you ready - if you have an opportunity to make the tournament - to be competitive in March."