"I think we definitely have to win some games (to lock up a bid)," Vol freshman Tobias Harris said. "That's our focus now - winning games. Everything else will play itself out."
"The map says we're in there but I don't want to leave it up to that," the Vols' head coach said today. "We're No. 3 in strength of schedule, we're 36 in RPI and we've got eight wins against the top 50. It would be 10 if Belmont wasn't 51.
"We've got 11 wins against the top 100 in RPI. We've got a great road record (5-5) and a great neutral record (3-0)."
If the selection committee members have short memories, however, the Vols could be on the proverbial bubble. They limped home 11-13 after starting the season 7-0. They were especially bad in Knoxville, losing four of their last five home games.
"We've got some bad losses, and we're not playing our best basketball," Pearl conceded. "And you never know how much the last 10 matter. It's always kind of a moving target. You hear it's about the body of work and then you hear it's about the last 10. I've never been a last-10 guy because a lot of that has to do with the schedule."
The Vols have some doubts about their NCAA resume, and they say those doubts will motivate them during the SEC Tournament.
"That's a big motivator," junior wing Scotty Hopson said. "We want to win this whole thing. We always want to win but we've got to prepare for four games, and it's going to be tough."
Although having an NCAA bid on the line produces motivation, it also produces pressure. If getting an invitation hinges on beating Arkansas, that means extra stress for a Vol team that has not performed well in high-stress situations much of this season.
"I'd say there is some pressure building up," Hopson said. "But this is basketball. You've got to put the pressure aside, understand what's at stake, then just go out and play basketball."
Most bracketologists say the Big Orange already is in the NCAA Tournament field. If not, though, it should nail down a bid by winning Thursday night. That raises the stakes vs. Arkansas, which already beat Tennessee 68-65 Jan. 8 in Fayetteville.
"I think it's big," Hopson said. "They say it was a bad loss losing to them at their house, so I'd say it's big."
Even if the Vols already have an NCAA Tournament bid locked up, Harris believes the team needs to play well in the league tourney to build a little momentum.
"We went 8-8 in SEC play," he said. "We need to make a run as a team, to build our confidence as a team and get to the NCAA Tournament."
Pearl has taken Tennessee to "The Dance" in each of his first five seasons at the helm, a feat accomplished just once previously in program history. That was by Don DeVoe, who guided the Vols to bids in 1979, '80, '81, '82 and '83. If Tennessee gets a sixth consecutive bid this year, that would be an unprecedented achievement.
"For me, going to the tournament six years in a row would probably mean as much as our first Elite Eight a year ago," Pearl said. "Getting to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history was a big deal but, still, that was winning three games. Getting to the NCAA Tournament six years in a row, to me, speaks of the consistency of our program."
Pearl's program may be consistent but his 2010-11 Vols are not. He readily admits that they've been "consistently inconsistent" this year. Still, they can salvage the season somewhat with a quality showing in the league tourney and another appearance in The Dance.
"If we continue to win, we help ourselves," the coach said. "If we don't, you leave it to chance."