Beating the elite

Like David of Biblical fame, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl is developing quite a reputation as a giant killer.

Saturday's 83-76 upset of No. 3 Pitt was Pearl's fifth win in his last seven outings against teams ranked in the top five nationally. He is 2-0 this season and 6-1 overall against teams from the prestigious Big East. He has played 18 games against top-10 foes in his five-plus years at the Big Orange helm, winning nine and losing nine. That suggests the Vols may be a top-10 program in their own right.

Pearl isn't willing to go there just yet, however.

"It just says we were better on those nights," he said following a brisk Sunday evening practice. "The thing I point to is how many of them (elite teams) we've gotten on the schedule and the fact we've been competitive. Whatever the numbers are, (the key is) that we're able to compete with them and they're on the schedule. Those are the two things that you want to do."

Pearl takes tremendous pride in his schedule, and rightfully so. This season's 7-0 start included defeats of Virginia Commonwealth, No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Pitt. Clearly, he isn't ducking anybody.

"Our guys came here to play that schedule," the Vol coach said. "Our fans want to see us against that schedule. I'm pleased we're in the position that we're in. This team's got a chance to be good."

Although Tennessee's fans get more hyped than usual when the Vols are facing an elite opponent, Tennessee's coach does not.

"Coach gets fired up for EVERY game," senior point guard Melvin Goins said, grinning softly. "But, as players, we all know when we're going into a tough environment, and it's kind of easy to get up for those games."

Asked how he would explain Pearl's success against top-10 competition, senior center Brian Williams replied without hesitation.

"We come ready to play," he said. "The coaches do the scout really well, then we execute what they want us to do. We just bring the intensity."

Whereas some teams get too keyed up for big games, Williams says that is not a problem for Tennessee.

"It brings out the talent in every one of us," he said, "and we're really excited for every game. I think we take every opponent the same, no matter what they're ranked."

Junior guard Scotty Hopson touched on the same theme. He believes Tennessee's coaches do such quality work in terms of scouting and preparing a game plan that the players go into each game relaxed and confident - no matter how heralded the opponent might be.

"The key is preparation," he said. "I think we understand who we're playing and what we have to do to beat those great teams. We're just executing Coach's game plans - understanding what we've got to do and executing it."

One factor that may be overlooked in Pearl's success against elite teams is the head man's ability to blend a dozen guys into a cohesive unit. The Vols tend to be close-knit, liking one another and trusting their coaches.

"We have team chemistry," Goins said. "Everybody's buying into what the coaches are teaching and everybody wants to win. I think the big thing is that we're just buying in to what Coach is telling us."


2005-06: Tennessee 95, No. 6 Texas 78

2005-06: No. 4 Memphis 88, Tennessee 79

2005-06: Tennessee 80, No. 2 Florida 76

2006-07: No. 2 North Carolina 101, Tennessee 87

2006-07: No. 5 Ohio State 68, Tennessee 66

2006-07: No. 1 Florida 94, Tennessee 78

2006-07: Tennessee 86, No. 5 Florida 76

2006-07: No. 1 Ohio State 85, Tennessee 84

2007-08: Tennessee 66, No. 1 Memphis 62

2008-09: No. 9 Gonzaga 83, Tennessee 74

2009-10: No. 6 Purdue 73, Tennessee 72

2009-10: Tennessee 76, No. 1 Kansas 68

2009-10: No. 3 Kentucky 73, Tennessee 62

2009-10: Tennessee 74, No. 2 Kentucky 65

2009-10: No. 3 Kentucky 74, Tennessee 45

2009-10: Tennessee 76, No. 5 Ohio State 73

2010-11: Tennessee 78, No. 7 Villanova 68

2010-11: Tennessee 83, No. 3 Pitt 76

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