Vols fired up for tourney

You see it every year in the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament: A team already assured of an NCAA Tournament berth comes out flat and gets upset by a team fighting to get off the bubble.

It has become a cliche: The team with nothing to gain falls to a team with nothing to lose ... a team that already accomplished its goal bows to a lesser team with more to play for.

Based on this scenario, Tennessee (22-9 overall, 10-6 SEC) appears to be primed for an upset going against an LSU team (16-14, 5-11) whose only hope for an NCAA bid is to win the league tourney this week in Atlanta.

Vol coach Bruce Pearl strongly disagrees. He insists that his team will be just as energetic and focused as the Tigers when the teams collide Thursday night at 9:45 EST in the Georgia Dome to conclude Day 1 of the 2007 tourney.

When asked how tough it will be to match LSU's intensity, Pearl smiled.

"It is easy. We did it at Georgia," he said, referring to last Saturday's regular-season finale over a Bulldog squad battling to secure an NCAA bid.

Pearl expertly used the "no-respect" angle last season in motivating a team projected fifth in the six-team SEC East to a division title, a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seeding and a 22-8 overall record. Now he's playing the no-respect card again.

Pearl is putting a chip on his players' shoulders by pointing out that they finished with the SEC's second-best league record but didn't get a first-round bye. There is no conspiracy at work, however. Florida (13-3) earned a bye thanks to a superior record. Vanderbilt (also 10-6) had a better divisional record than UT. Mississippi State and Ole Miss (both 8-8) shared the SEC West title, earning their first-round byes.

Pearl also told his players UT would be snubbed for postseason honors – that Chris Lofton would be denied Player of the year recognition ... that JaJuan Smith would be left off the All-SEC squad ... that Ramar Smith would be denied Freshman of the Year accolades ... that Pearl would be passed over in Coach of the Year balloting.

The SEC coaches proved Pearl correct. They picked Vanderbilt's Derrick Byars Player of the Year and Kevin Stallings Coach of the Year. They tabbed Arkansas's Patrick Beverley Freshman of the Year and omitted JaJuan Smith from their first- AND second-team all-conference squads.

Pearl will use these snubs to make sure his team is just as motivated as LSU when the opening tip goes up Thursday night.

"We have the second-best record in the league (yet) we don't get a first-round bye," Pearl said earlier this week. "My guess is we're all going to get slighted for individual awards. And we haven't won anything yet."

Assuming the Vols are buying what their coach is selling, they should be hungry for victory when they play their SEC opener.

"Hunger alone is not going to beat LSU," Pearl said. "But I promise you: LSU is not going to want to win that game more than we will. I PROMISE you."

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