"Our next four games are against teams that will be in the NCAA Tournament," Pearl noted, "and a couple of them will be highly seeded."
Are the Vols up to the task?
"We're going to find out," Pearl said. "This is a crucial week for us."
Making it especially crucial is the fact the Vols are 6-2 but have yet to register the kind of "quality win" that helps get a team off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament in March. Tennessee faced two teams who would've qualified as quality wins except for one minor detail.
"We had a shot at two teams so far that I know will be there – Butler and North Carolina – but we weren't good enough to beat 'em," Pearl noted.
Tennessee's youthful roster features six guys playing their first season of college ball – freshmen Duke Crews, Wayne Chism, Ramar Smith, Josh Tabb and Marques Johnson, plus sophomore transfer Tony Passley. Instead of maturing gradually, they're being asked to grow up in a hurry to meet the demands of UT's rugged pre-conference schedule.
"Are we ready? We'll find out," Pearl said. "We played even with a Final Four team, North Carolina, in the second half at New York, and now we're going to get a chance in Memphis to play against a team that's as talented as anybody in the country. Memphis is probably more athletic and faster (than a year ago). It's as fast a team as I've seen."
The coach went on to note that Oklahoma State "brings almost everybody back, except one key kid. And they're huge – big and strong."
Pearl said Texas closely resembles one of the teams Tennessee already has faced.
"Texas is young," the coach said. "They're like North Carolina – real talented but young."
Given the high profiles carried by Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas, it would be easy to overlook Western Kentucky. Pearl says that would be a serious mistake.
"Don't leave those guys out," the coach cautioned. "Western Kentucky is right there with Butler, Wichita State and Missouri State as the top mid-majors. They're picked to win the Sun Belt."
Obviously, going 3-1 or 4-0 in the next four games would give a tremendous boost to Tennessee's chances of getting an NCAA Tournament bid in March. Are the Vols ready to face such a daunting task?
"I think so," junior guard Chris Lofton said. "I think everybody's ready for big games and the big-time atmosphere. That's what you live for."