And the early numbers indicate that the Volunteers are much better than their No. 13 ranking in the latest Associated Press top 25 poll suggests.
Tennessee (15-3, 6-1 SEC) was ranked fourth in the first official RPI standings, released Wednesday by the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee. The RPI uses a mathematical formula to rank every Division I college basketball, and it takes into account a team's record and strength of schedule.
But why should Southeastern Conference coaches care about their team's RPI? The NCAA uses it to help determine which teams are invited to play in the NCAA Tournament.
"You look at (the RPI) and concern yourself with it as much as wins and losses," Pearl said. "... I think looking and studying the RPI is important in talking about future scheduling and things like that. It's a factor in how you schedule and what the strength of your schedule is.
"This year, we benefited by playing Memphis (and) Texas in the nonconference (schedule), and being able to beat one of them (the Longhorns) has really kept our RPI where it's at."
College coaches have been able to track their team's RPI in the past. But before Wednesday, the NCAA had not publicly disclosed a week-by-week update of the RPI rankings.
And the first one showed what critics have been saying for months: The SEC is down.
Along with Tennessee, only four other SEC teams are ranked in the top 50 based on RPI: LSU (No. 19), Florida (No. 20), Kentucky (No. 36) and Vanderbilt (No. 50). Arkansas stayed at No. 61 from last week's ranking, but the Razorbacks could move up with wins over South Carolina (No. 74) and LSU this week.
"(The RPI) is something that we pay close attention to," Pearl said.
USC's Balkman doubtful for Arkansas
Judging by how grim things have looked this week, South Carolina might be one post player short when the team returns to action Saturday at Arkansas.
USC coach Dave Odom said Thursday that forward Renaldo Balkman's chances of playing against the Razorbacks in Bud Walton Arena appear "cloudy at best" after the junior sprained his left knee in Monday's practice.
Balkman leads the Gamecocks in rebounding (6.3 boards per game) despite coming off the bench as of late, and he's tied for the team lead with 30 blocked shots. The 6-foot-8 forward also ranks third on the team in scoring (10.3 points per game), and USC could have a hard time slowing down Arkansas in the paint without Balkman.
"(Wednesday), he rehabbed all day, and the report this morning is that he is better. But if we played today, he could not play," Odom said. "As coaches, we have to plan to go without him. And if he plays, that would certainly be a real blessing to us because we need him badly."
Arkansas coach Stan Heath, meanwhile, said that he will likely wait until Saturday before naming his starting lineup. He said earlier this week that he was considering the possibility of making some changes at point guard and forward.
"I'm not sure what changes we'll make, if any," Heath said.
Wildcats come back from "dead"
Only two weeks ago, Kentucky was in the midst of a three-game losing streak that had fans concerned and critics taking shots at the team.
But since a 68-64 loss to Alabama at Rupp Arena on Jan. 14, the Wildcats (15-6, 5-2) have started to play like coach Tubby Smith had hoped for from the beginning. The Wildcats have won a season-high five consecutive games, including Sunday's 78-76 victory over Arkansas in which they came back from an 18-point first-half deficit.
Considering the turnaround, a reporter asked Smith if he was surprised that critics tried so early to "bury" his team with the criticism.
"No, I'm not surprised by anything," Smith said. "That's the way we were playing, like we needed to be buried. We were playing like we were dead. So I wasn't surprised at all."
Make sure to wear a helmet
There is not much coaches can do to keep their players from getting injured. That was evident earlier this week when Florida guard Lee Humphrey, who leads the SEC in 3-point field-goal percentage (49.6 percent), separated his shoulder after falling off his bicycle.
Humphrey, who was averaging 10.9 points and 2.2 assists per game, is expected to miss one to three weeks because of the freak injury.
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried was asked if there are any physical activities -- outside of playing basketball -- that he warns his players about doing in order to limit their chances of getting injured. He had a simple answer.
"I don't let them hang glide during the season," Gottfried said, laughing. "Things happen. We're all human beings, too. Riding a bike, I don't think any of us would think that's too threatening. So things happen in life sometimes when you least expect them."
RPI Shows Volunteers Are Better, Not SEC
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