Pearl on SEC East

Now that the appetizers are finished, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl is preparing for the main course – the annual gauntlet known as the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule.

"Ready or not," he wisecracked, "here we come."

Are the Vols prepared for the stepped-up level of competition? Their first-year coach certainly hopes so.

"Are we ready for this now?" he said, repeating an oft-asked question. "I don't know. It's going to be challenging. It's going to be very competitive."

And it's going to be interesting. The SEC race usually is. That's especially true in the Eastern Division this year.

Florida is 13-0 and ranked No. 5 nationally. Perennial powerhouse Kentucky, 10-3 and ranked No. 19, gets a big boost from the return of 6-foot-11 Randolph Morris following a failed bid to join the NBA. Surprising Georgia also stands 10-3. Vanderbilt is 9-2 and South Carolina 9-4. All of these teams still entertain hopes of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

"Can you tell me who hasn't put themselves in position at this point?" Pearl asked rhetorically. "I don't see anybody.

"Florida's undefeated, a top-five team. Kentucky gets Randolph Morris back (and) they've already beaten some quality people – West Virginia and Louisville. Georgia's already won close to as many games as they won a year ago. South Carolina brought a lot of people back. Vanderbilt's only lost twice. And we're 9-1, having beaten Texas on the road."

Meanwhile, Arkansas (11-2), Ole Miss (10-3) and Mississippi State (10-3) are off to hot starts in the SEC West.

"Anybody who wants to talk to me about how down the SEC is isn't really studying what we've done in our conference," Pearl grumbled. "Particularly in the East."

Oddly enough, two of the SEC's most physically gifted teams – LSU (8-4) and Alabama (7-5) – are still struggling to jell.

"Over in the wild West, LSU may be most talented," Pearl noted, "and Alabama will play better in league play."

Clearly, competition in the SEC is going to be fierce this winter, even though the conference may not have a marquee team.

"Overall," Pearl said, "the bottom is better, the middle is better, and maybe the top of the SEC isn't quite as good as people have come to expect."

Although the UT coach admits that "I am happy with our team," he figures the intense competition within the league could make it difficult for the Vols to improve on the 6-10 SEC record that earned them a fifth-place divisional finish one year ago.

In his words: "There will be a good team in this league that finishes 5th or 6th in the East."

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