The Vols (6-2) will find out tonight if they can lay claim to being the state's top program – at least this year -- when No. 16 Memphis (6-1) visits Knoxville.
Pearl didn't want to admit it, but Memphis has clearly been the top men's basketball program in the state over the past five years, 10 years, 20 years, 25 years. The record speaks for itself. The NCAA Tournament bids speak for themselves.
Memphis has a right to pound its chest. And Pearl knows it. Perhaps that's why he said a sellout crowd tonight is important to recording a win.
``It's vital,'' Pearl said. ``Memphis looks at itself as a national program. And it is. They look at Tennessee as a regional program. We are trying to become a national top 25 program.
``There is not program in the country that respects us less than Memphis, and that's because we haven't done enough to earn their respect. That should bother our fans enough that we should try to show Memphis we are indeed a national program. But we have to do it on the floor.''
Wow: ``There is not a program in the country that respects us less than Memphis.''
Strong words from Pearl. You wonder how Pearl knows that.
You wonder if Memphis coach John Calipari agrees with that statement. Or perhaps it was Pearl's way of stirring the passion of Vols fans in an effort to boost attendance.
In any case, a Tennessee win would count as a huge upset. Memphis lost two great players off last year's team, yet, the Tigers have top-20 talent, if not top-10 talent. They have a roster chalked with athletic players, including point guard Willie Kemp. They even have Tracy McGrady's younger brother.
Calipari doesn't rebuild. He reloads.
This is an important game for Memphis to remain in the top 20. It's more important for Tennessee, which needs to make a statement this season and notch a resume-boosting win for the NCAA Selection Committee.
Based on what I've seen thus far, the Vols won't match last year's 22 wins, SEC East Division title or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And unless Tennessee finds a point guard and accuracy from the foul line, an NCAA bid isn't a guarantee.
Tennessee has eight players who have attempted at least 10 free throws; four are making less than 53 percent and a fifth is making just 61 percent. Nine of the 11 scholarship players have more turnovers than assists. Only Dane Bradshaw and Jordan Howell have a positive ratio.
Based on early returns, I don't see Tennessee winning 18 games. But it's early. The young players will get better. The ball-handling will get better. The free throw shooting will get better.
If it doesn't get better tonight, the Vols won't earn respect from Memphis.
SEC BEST IN RECENT BOWLS
The SEC has fared well against the Big Ten in bowl games since the start of the 1995 season.
Thanks to Georgia (4-0), Tennessee (3-0) and South Carolina (2-0), the SEC is 17-12 against the Big Ten in bowl games over the past 11 years. LSU (2-1) also has a winning record. Alabama (2-2) is .500. Arkansas (0-2), Auburn (2-3), Florida (2-3) and Kentucky (-0-1) have losing records since 1995.
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer is 3-0 against the Big Ten in bowls.
By the way, Ohio State is 0-7 against SEC teams in bowls. And the Buckeyes don't have many wins over the SEC overall. They beat LSU 36-33 in 1988. You won't find many other OSU wins over the SEC.
As for the SEC and Big Ten overall, the Big Ten leads 91-86, but the top six teams in the SEC all have winning marks. Tennessee is 9-4. Florida (8-4), LSU (6-4), Georgia (7-2), Auburn (6-3) and Alabama (13-9) have winning marks against the Big Ten.
Vanderbilt (7-16) and Kentucky (24-31) are a combined 16 games below .500. South Carolina (3-5), Ole Miss (0-3) and Mississippi State (2-6) also have losing records against the Big Ten.
CUTCLIFFE RECRUITING SMITH
Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has been recruiting Harrison Smith of Catholic High, attending an Irish basketball game last week.
It makes sense to put Cutcliffe on Smith. Cutcliffe worked as a Notre Dame assistant for several months in 2005 before suffering a heart attack. He knows both programs well. He also was the first to recommend that the Vols offer Smith, which UT did in the spring, before Smith became a hot commodity.