Pearl asks for support

Tennessee basketball was comatose when Bruce Pearl took the reins two years ago. He took the first step toward reviving it in March of 2006, winning the SEC East title and a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament.

The "next step" in the rejuvenation process would be advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16. The Vols have a chance to take that step this weekend, but Pearl says they can't take it alone. He believes the key to beating Long Beach State (Friday) and the Virginia/Albany winner (Sunday) is packing a lot of orange-clad fans into Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

"For us to advance," he said, "that's going to have to be a factor this weekend in Columbus."

Tennessee fans showed up in good numbers last weekend at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, hopeful of seeing the Vols make a good showing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Instead, UT was ousted by LSU in the first round.

Pearl regrets that so many Big Orange supporters made the trek to Atlanta for a one-and-done performance. If it's any consolation, he noted that his players flew to Atlanta following their Thursday classes, played the game, then turned around and flew back – all in a matter of hours.

"Our players weren't real happy about it, either," he said of the early ouster.

Naturally, Pearl is hoping Tennessee's players – and Tennessee's fans – will enjoy a longer and more fruitful stay in Columbus this weekend. Participating in the NCAA Tournament - a.k.a. "March Madness" - is the ultimate experience in college hoops.

"It's an exciting time of year," Pearl said. "This doesn't get old. This doesn't ever get old. You have to appreciate how difficult it is to get invited to this dance.

"When you look at all the great teams in the country that didn't get a chance to go you really are very appreciative and feel very blessed. And I do (feel blessed) for the way this basketball team has performed to put itself in this position."

Just getting to "The Dance" isn't enough, however. All that means is that you're one of the top 65 programs in the country. If the Vols are to achieve national prominence – as they did during the Ernie Grunfeld/Bernard King days three decades ago – they need to establish themselves as a Sweet 16-caliber program.

Pearl concedes as much, and he's hoping UT fans will help in that endeavor.

"If we're going to make another step in the direction we want to go, we've got to advance this weekend," he said. "To do that, we've got to win two games. And, to do that, we need our fans."

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