'Respect and fear'

Sometimes a little fear is a good thing. Just ask Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl.

The Vols are preparing for one of the most imposing challenges of Pearl's five-plus years at the Big Orange helm - facing the third-ranked Pitt Panthers (10-0) Saturday at the Big East/SEC Challenge in Pittsburgh. Although the game will be played at the off-campus Consol Energy Center, the venue will be filled with the same fans who have helped the Panthers go 82-1 vs. non-conference opposition at the on-campus Peterson Events Center over the past nine years.

If the prospect of facing such a strong opponent in its home city doesn't make the Vols feel a little weak in the knees, maybe it should.

"This is a balance between respect and fear," Pearl said. "They (Vols) will respect 'em but they've got to make sure they're not fearful of the quality of the opponent and the location."

Whether the Vol coach fears Pitt is something only he knows but he clearly respects the Panthers. Pearl stands 8-9 against top-10 opponents at UT after knocking off No. 6 Villanova eight days ago but he believes the Panthers present a much stiffer challenge.

"Pittsburgh's bigger. They're deeper," he said. "Pittsburgh is averaging 20 assists per game. That's incredible. Their starting point guard is third on the team in assists. Whereas Villanova had a playmaker or two, all of Pittsburgh's guards are playmakers. I think they've got better balance."

Making the hill even steeper is the fact this will be Tennessee's first true road test. The defeat of Villanova occurred on a neutral floor at Madison Square Garden. Although the Wildcats had far more fans in the stands, the atmosphere was nothing like the one the Vols will encounter on Saturday.

"It'll be more hostile," Pearl said. "Pittsburgh will have elevated play because of the environment and because of the support they'll have. We can't let their elevated play allow us to hurt ourselves.

"We're going to turn the ball over but we can't turn it over two or three times in a row. We're going to give up an offensive rebound but we can't let that be on a regular basis. We can't be our own worst enemies, and that sometimes is what will happen."

Ever since he took the Vol reins Pearl has shown a willingness to challenge the NCAA's toughest teams. Facing the Panthers in Pittsburgh is just another illustration of this trait.

"This was the Volunteers volunteering," he said, adding that "There weren't a lot of volunteers (among SEC teams) to go up there to Pittsburgh and play Pittsburgh without a return game. So, to put myself in good stead with our commissioner, I volunteered for the game. We'll see how it works out."

However it works out, Tennessee's coach will learn a lot about his squad. Though 6-0 and ranked 11th nationally, the Vols remain very much a mystery team.

"We're going to get a great barometer of where we're at," Pearl conceded, subsequently adding: "It's hard to be confident going to play the No. 3 team in their town. I'm confident that we won't see anybody better all season long in the regular season than Pittsburgh. That's not a knock on going to Vandy or going to Kentucky or going to Florida ... it's just that they (Panthers) look as good as anybody."

With a national TV audience watching on ESPN, this shapes up as a great opportunity for the Vols to prove themselves.

"We'll be excited," Pearl said. "We'll respect our opponent. The quality of their play will challenge us and, hopefully, bring out the best in us."

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