'Step-up Week'

Head coach Bruce Pearl recently designated this "Step-Up Week" for his University of Tennessee basketball program. Actually, "Step-Up MONTH" probably would have been a more appropriate designation.

In the next three weeks the Vols will face Memphis (tonight in Knoxville), Western Kentucky (Dec. 16 in Knoxville), Oklahoma State (Dec. 18 in Nashville) and Texas (Dec. 23 in Knoxville).

"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."

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