‘Bubble' Trouble

Clearly "on the bubble" Alabama won its way into the NCAA Tournament by beating Tennessee on Feb. 18. Another bubble team, Arkansas, won its way in by beating Tennessee last Saturday. Wednesday night the Vols host Kentucky, yet another bubble team looking to win its way to The Dance at UT's expense.

Despite an 18-10 overall record and an 8-6 SEC mark, the tradition-rich Big Blue is no lock to get a bid. The Wildcats stand just 2-8 against top-50 RPI teams. That's why Kentucky will view the UT game as a do-or-die situation, just as Alabama did 10 days ago and just as Arkansas did three days ago. Both teams gave their all against the Vols and both came away victorious. The Big Orange can expect no less from the Wildcats.

"We just have to be prepared to take every team's best shot," junior forward Dane Bradshaw says. "That's what we want. That's the type of respect we want to have. We have to win games like this if we really want to win the respect we're looking for."

Knowing a loss to Tennessee would probably kill its NCAA Tournament chances, Arkansas rallied from 14 points down to beat the Vols last weekend.

"They acted like they wanted it more," Bradshaw said. "They played like their backs were against the wall. We failed to do that and match their intensity, which is our fault."

At 20-5 overall and 11-3 in SEC play, Tennessee already has an NCAA bid locked up. That makes it difficult for the Vols to match the intensity of opponents such as Bama, Arkansas and UK that have so much more at stake. These teams are playing for survival, and that raises their intensity a notch or two.

"It's tough," Vol coach Bruce Pearl says. "You can see that, for sure. But that's OK."

It"s OK because Pearl figures his team has plenty to play for, as well. Each UT win has the potential to boost the Vols' NCAA seeding. Moreover, the Vols are looking to build some momentum heading into the Big Dance.

"We've got a lot to play for," Pearl said. "Part of our focus has got to be on trying to improve the things we can improve as a team, so we don't have our backboard so compromised or don't get beat in the post as much. There are still things we have to do technically to correct that. We focus on that."

Asked if he might relax a bit now that he has an NCAA bid secured, Pearl shook his head.

"I'm on the edge of my seat for a Southern Indiana exhibition game," he said. "It's not going to be any different for Kentucky on Wednesday. The players will see no change in my intensity or preparation."

Although Pearl's intensity has stayed at a consistent level all season, his pride in this team has grown throughout this Cinderella season.

"This is a championship team and they've done a wonderful job," he says. "As I told the crowd after the (Arkansas) game: ‘I could be happier if we'd won today but I couldn't be any prouder of them.' They've done a wonderful job."


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