PEARL: My vision for Tennessee basketball is that one day soon we'll be competing with Kentucky on a regular basis for championships. I think Tennessee is one of the few schools in the SEC that has the resources, the means, the history, the facilities, the fan base, the television markets and the locatoin to build a basketball program that could rival Kentucky and be at the top of the SEC.
Based on UT's 75-67 win at Rupp Arena, that day already has arrived. Tennessee is atop the SEC with an 8-1 record, one-half game ahead of LSU (7-1), 1½ games ahead of Florida (6-2), 2½ games ahead of Alabama (5-3) and 3 games ahead of the Big Blue (5-4).
Later in the same interview, I had posed a question regarding UK's long-standing dominance of the league.
RTN: How do you feel about having a perennial national power like Kentucky in the same division of your conference?
PEARL: It's great. All Kentucky does is raise the bar. That's where the bar is set in the SEC East, and that's where we've got to get to. I think it's good they're in our league and in our division. When I was at Southern Indiana I had to beat Kentucky Wesleyan. When I was at Milwaukee I had to beat Detroit and Butler. Here, it's Kentucky. That's where the bar's set and that's where we're going to try and get the program to. It's not going to be an easy situation but it's do-able.
Pearl proved just how do-able it was Tuesday night.
One day before taking his team to Lexington, the Vol coach saluted the Wildcats, who have won more SEC titles than the rest of the league combined.
"I've never seen a team dominate a conference in men's basketball as this one has been dominated by Kentucky," Pearl said. "Maybe the Lady Vols in women's basketball come close but I can't think of anybody in football that's been as dominant in any conference."
While noting that Kentucky "certainly is the leader" of the league, Pearl added that the conference's other teams must raise their level of play for the SEC to become a truly great basketball league.
"What makes the ACC and the Big East the best basketball conferences in the country is the parity," the Vol coach noted. "They have five or six teams that are playing for national championships. We in the SEC need to continue to get more parity."
Pearl struck a big blow for parity Tuesday night.