"I don't think right now we're one of the top 25 teams in the country," Bruce Pearl said this week. "I don't think we're playing to that level yet. I think we can be, and that's our goal, absolutely. But, taking us just on where we are right now, we're not one of the top 25 teams in the country yet."
That's because the Vols are a jigsaw puzzle still being assembled. Tobias Harris is the starting power forward, and two more freshmen (point guard Trae Golden, wing Jordan McRae) are key contributors off the bench. Senior Melvin Goins is a second-year transfer who is in his first year as the starter at point guard. Senior Brian Williams is in his first year as a full-time starter at center. Senior John Fields is the No. 2 center but he's a first-year transfer. Junior Cameron Tatum is in his first year as a full-time starter at small forward. And junior Scotty Hopson - the lone returning starter from 2009-10 - is trying to become a leader after spending two years as a follower.
"My basketball team is not young and my basketball team is not inexperienced," Pearl said. "It's just new."
And it's unpredictable. The Vols looked impressive while blowing out Brevard College 91-42 in their exhibition opener, then flopped in a 79-64 exhibition loss to Div. II Indianapolis. They bounced back, however, to play quite well throughout an 82-62 defeat of Chattanooga in the regular-season opener on Friday.
"We're better now than we were a week ago," Pearl said, "but this would be the start of our fourth week (of practice)."
Win or lose vs. Belmont, the Vols will play again Wednesday at 7. The opponent will be either Missouri State of the rugged Missouri Valley Conference or Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Conference. Those teams collide tonight at 7.
Pearl considers all three of the mid-majors on hand to be worthy adversaries, noting: "It's amazing that college basketball gets started with a bang."
All four teams competing at Thompson-Boling tonight have their sights set on advancing to the NIT semifinals and finals scheduled Nov. 24 and 26 in New York City. That represents a chance to go home for Vols Williams (The Bronx) and Harris (Dix Hills, N.Y.).
"Would Tobias Harris like to get back to New York? I would imagine so," Pearl said. "How about Brian Williams? Sure. Certainly, this is what our goal is. But is that goal and desire we bring more than Belmont or Arkansas State or Missouri State trying to beat a top-20 program and get in the NCAA Tournament? I don't think we've got any more incentive than they do."
Pearl has been down this road before. He guided his 2006-07 Vol squad to New York by beating Fordham 78-71 and UNC Wilmington 87-75 in NIT Season-Tipoff play at the Sommet Center in Nashville.
"Fordham and Wilmington in Nashville were not as difficult as these three teams are here," Pearl said. "We've got three really good teams."
The Knoxville field, Tennessee's coach believes, should make for two exciting nights of action.
"I think our fans are going to be treated to really good basketball," he said. "We've got the NIT here in Knoxville, Tennessee. The NIT is still special, and the winner goes to New York. That's special."