Can Vols hold serve?

It may sound a little melodramatic but the next eight days probably will determine whether the Tennessee Vols spend March playing in the NCAA Tournament or the Not Invited Tournament ... uh, NIT.

The Big Orange has yet to lose at Thompson-Boling Arena and, with three home games in the next eight days, it must keep that streak intact to retain realistic hopes for an NCAA bid. Tennessee (15-8 overall, 3-5 in SEC play) hosts LSU tonight at 9, Vanderbilt Saturday at 1 and Kentucky next Tuesday at 7. The Vandy game will be televised by Lincoln Financial Sports. The other two are on ESPN.

Sweeping this three-game home stand would improve the Vols' overall record to 18-8 and boost their league mark to 6-5. Accomplishing this would allow them to go 2-3 down the stretch and still finish with a 20-11 regular-season record and an 8-8 league mark. Given UT's impressive RPI, that would be enough to get an NCAA bid.

If the Vols lose one of these next three home games, however, their NCAA hopes dim considerably. They would then need to beat Alabama and top-ranked Florida at home AND beat either South Carolina, Arkansas or Georgia on the road just to reach the 8-8 level in SEC play. Based on historical precedent, a 7-9 league record probably won't be enough to get an NCAA bid.

Although he considers himself "one of those guys that always sees the glass half full, instead of half empty," UT head coach Bruce Pearl conceded that, "This is probably as difficult a conference schedule as I've ever gone through as a head coach. It's my greatest challenge."

Pearl says he finished in the conference lead – or within a game of the conference lead – in each of his first 14 years as a head coach. As a result, he says that being five games behind SEC front-runner Florida (8-0) is "unchartered territory for me."

The coach said he hopes the challenge will "bring out the best in me" and that it had better bring out the best in his players as well.

"If a kid gives up," the coach vowed, "he won't be wearing a uniform."

Last year's Vol squad won the SEC East title and earned a No. 2 seeding for the NCAA Tournament, even though it wilted in March. This year's team does not have that luxury. It must finish with a flourish just to get into the NCAA tourney.

"Last year's team accomplished an awful lot but didn't play its best basketball down the stretch," Pearl said. "We're going to have to (play their best) in order to put together enough wins to get in the NCAA Tournament. We understand what the challenges are."

Florida (21-2 overall, 8-0 in SEC play) and Kentucky (17-5, 6-2) appear to be locks for NCAA bids. Everyone else in the league is on the bubble at this point.

"Seven SEC teams already have five or more losses in league play," Pearl noted. "We're still in it. We've just got to take care of our business."

Starting tonight, with the first of three crucial home games.


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