Who woulda' thunk it?

Not much has changed as Tennessee and Kentucky prepare for their annual border battle in Lexington. As usual, one team is nationally ranked and apparently headed for a fine season. As usual, the other team is unranked and apparently headed for the NCAA Tournament "bubble."

Well … one thing HAS changed: The ranked team is Tennessee and the unranked team is Kentucky.

The Wildcats were No. 2 nationally when they hosted an unranked UT squad in 2003. They were No. 9 when they hosted the unranked Big Orange in 2004 and they were No. 3 when they hosted unranked UT in 2005. This time, though, the Big Blue (15-7 overall, 5-3 SEC) is unranked and the Big Orange (16-3, 7-1) is No. 11.

Who woulda' thunk it?

Not Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. He never would've dreamed that his Vols would outrank Tubby Smith's Wildcats as the SEC season headed into the home stretch. But, now that the Big Orange has leapfrogged the Big Blue, Pearl is looking for ways to stay in front.

"We're pleased with the position we're in," the Vol coach said. "But now it's all about: Can we take advantage of the position that we're in?"

Pearl was so unimpressed with the talent he inherited last October that he pleaded with fans to be patient and to support the program during the building process. To date, the fans' patience hasn't been tested. Tennessee has suffered just one two-game losing streak (at LSU Jan. 14 and at Memphis Jan. 18). The Vols have upset two top-10 teams (No. 6 Texas on the road, No. 2 Florida at home).

Life is good; who needs patience?

"I still want people to be patient," Pearl said. "I still want them to understand that the same limitations we had early in the season we still have. We're not very big. Some people would question whether we're very athletic. We're not very deep.

"But we're big enough, athletic enough and deep enough to be competitive. That's been enough."

With half of their 16 SEC games still to be played, the Vols have a great chance to post a 20-win season and earn an NCAA Tournament bid. Once viewed as unattainable, those goals are looking more and more realistic. The question is: Can the Vols finish what they've started?

"We'll see how much gas is left in the tank and how much better we can get," Pearl said. "Some teams don't get better during the season. I think this team has gotten better but we've got to continue that as we go up against this schedule."

UT's remaining schedule features three home games and five road games, beginning with Tuesday night's nationally televised (ESPN) showdown at Rupp Arena.

"We're going to find out if we're up to the task," Pearl said. "The schedule certainly doesn't favor the Vols. We're the only team in the SEC with five road games left, and all five are going to be challenging."

None may be any more challenging than Tuesday night's game at Rupp Arena. Given that Tennessee has the superior record and ranking – for once – Big Blue fans are sure to show up in large numbers and full voice.

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