Great expectations

The problem with continually raising the bar is that you must continually jump higher to clear it. Tennessee's basketball players are OK with that.

Just two years removed from a 14-17 season, the Vols are the odds-on favorites to win the Southeastern Conference championship in 2007-08. Many analysts are projecting them as a top-10 team. Questioned Wednesday, as they began preparations for their upcoming European exhibition tour, the Vols suggested that such projections are no big deal.

"It's great to be ranked that high," All-America guard Chris Lofton said, "but it's just paper. We've got to do it on the court."

Asked if the lofty expectations create more incentive or more pressure, Lofton shrugged.

"I guess you could say a little bit of both," he said. "Coach (Bruce Pearl) knows that we're nothing yet, and we've got a lot of work to do."

JaJuan Smith, another senior guard, also dismissed the preseason projections as a lot of hype.

"You can't think about that because we're still the same guys," he said. "When we got here we had to prove ourselves. It's funny but, after you prove yourself, you've got to hold your own. So now we've got to hold our own and show we're meant to be here."

With eight of the top nine players back from last year's Sweet 16 team, sophomore point guard Ramar Smith believes the Vols should be highly touted heading into the 2007-08 season.

"I think we deserve it," he said. "We did things to make people think we should be able to win it this year. We've been there and we know we can make it happen. There's certain things we've got to work on as a team but I think we've got the right parts."

Fellow sophomore Duke Crews represented the other end of the spectrum. Rather than embrace the hoopla, he dismisses it.

"I don't think nothin' about it," he said matter of factly. "We ain't played no games yet."

Still, being pegged as a top-10 team has to be flattering, right?

"It is when you see it," Crews replied. "But, at the same time, you see top-10 teams get upset all the time, so we've still got to come in and work hard."

After going 22-8 in Year 1 and 24-11 in Year 2, Pearl has moved Tennessee from obscurity to respectability. The perception is that the 2007-08 Vols are ready to take the next step – to prosperity. Their coach says his team still has a lot to prove before it qualifies as an elite program, however.

"I understand that we've had two good years and, with the talent and depth on this roster, we have a chance to have another good year," Pearl said. "The longer you put those years together – run them back to back to back – the more you can change perception.

"The media's perception has changed. We are on national television. I think there's some perception in the coaching profession now that this is a pretty good job."

Still, there is one area in which Tennessee lags behind the NCAA heavyweights.

"It's not out there yet in recruiting," Pearl said. "When kids have to choose between us and Duke or us and North Carolina, we're still not there. And the only way we can get there is by getting to a Final Four, by winning a national championship.

"We're not a national power. We're not there yet. But that's what we're working towards."

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