Memphis was coming off a 33-4 season that included a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Western was coming off a 23-8 record, a Sun Belt Conference title and an NCAA Tournament appearance. Oklahoma State was returning all five starters from a team that trounced Tennessee by 16 points in 2005-06. Texas was coming off a 30-7 season and a Big 12 title.
A 1-3 record during this four-game stretch appeared likely. A 2-2 mark appeared possible. A 3-1 record appeared optimistic. A 4-0 mark appeared little more than a pipe dream.
Incredibly, that pipe dream may be on the verge of becoming a reality. The Vols already knocked off Memphis (76-58), Western (93-79) and Oklahoma State (79-77). If they can beat Texas today at Thompson-Boling Arena they would go 4-0 through perhaps the toughest stretch of pre-conference games in program history.
Given that five freshmen and a transfer are playing their first season of college basketball for Tennessee this year, Pearl admits being a bit surprised by his team's recent success.
"I expected them to improve," he said. "To the point where we could win our last three games against three NCAA Tournament teams? I don't know."
Pearl noted that the high level of competition has made the past few weeks seem "almost like NCAA Tournament play. Oklahoma State was big, strong and physical. Texas is a little more like Western Kentucky in the way they shoot the 3-ball but they're going to challenge you in a different way. It's all about building these experiences, so you can get into conference play and deal with the different dimensions of the different teams."
Tennessee's players are justifiably proud of their recent accomplishments. Beating three teams who project to play in the NCAA Tournament is a big deal. The deal won't be closed, though, until the Vols win one more game.
"I'm obviously very pleased with beating Western Kentucky, Memphis and Oklahoma State," Pearl said. "But Texas will bring in a whole new set of challenges."
Forward Dane Bradshaw agrees with that assessment. He figures the Longhorns could be the toughest test yet in the Vols' four-game December meat-grinder.
"We've been very successful at 3-0, and we're hoping to get this win," he said. "But we're really going to have to guard Texas on the perimeter – much like Memphis – to contain their penetration. Obviously, (6-9 freshman Kevin) Durant is a phenomenal player, and he'll be a key focus for us.""
As Tennessee's only senior, Bradshaw is encouraged by the growth and maturation exhibited by his youthful teammates. He knows these processes must continue, however, if the Vols are to reach their potential.
"One thing every team wants to do is continue to get better throughout the season and, hopefully, reach your peak at the end," he said.
The Vols have improved steadily since Game 1, making their biggest strides since suffering back-to-back losses to Butler and North Carolina Nov. 22 and 24 in the NIT Tipoff tournament at Madison Square Garden.
"One thing to look back on is the way we bounced back after New York," Bradshaw said. "The way we came together in that second half against North Carolina, it seems like we haven't really stopped from there."
Still, Tennessee remains young and inexperienced. Perhaps Texas will exploit these shortcomings this afternoon. Then again, maybe not.
"I'm sure there will be a few more bumps in the road," Bradshaw said, "but the way we've responded as a young team I think is very impressive."