Vols still pretenders

Despite a 14-1 record and a No. 6 national ranking, the Tennessee Basketball Vols are in no danger of becoming overconfident. Not as long as Bruce Pearl is their head coach, anyway.

Pearl hints that the Vols will remain pretenders – not contenders – until they win something substantial ... a Southeastern Conference championship, for instance.

Still, there is a popular perception that UT's opponents are more dangerous because they have an opportunity to knock off a top-10 team, whereas the ultra-successful Vols are more vulnerable because they are susceptible to complacency.

Asked this week how his players answer the challenge of having "a target on their backs" every game, Pearl merely pointed to last Wednesday's 85-83 defeat of Ole Miss and last Saturday's 80-56 drubbing of South Carolina.

"Ole Miss came in here, and they were the ones that had a banner (SEC West champs) in '06-07, not Tennessee," the coach noted. "So, it was not a problem getting ready for them.

"We went to South Carolina last year and got beat by four touchdowns," he added, referring to an 81-64 setback at Columbia. "So that wasn't too difficult."

Actually, 17 points would be two touchdowns and a field goal, not four TDs. Still, Pearl's point is clear: Tennessee has no reason to overlook anyone, least of all the 16th-ranked Vanderbilt team (16-1) that visits Thompson-Boling Arena for a 7 o'clock tipoff Thursday night.

"Vanderbilt is a huge rival that comes in nationally ranked and, up until Saturday, undefeated," he said.

Tennessee has played some great basketball in the season's first two months. That will be quickly forgotten, though, unless the Vols can put together a great finish these next 2½ months.

"It's a marathon," Pearl said. "It's going to be a long run. You have to be excited about playing each game to give yourself a chance to compete for an NCAA Tournament."

Numerous basketball analysts projected in preseason that, with two-time defending national champ Florida rebuilding, Tennessee loomed as the SEC's only top-quality team for 2007-08. Pearl vehemently refutes this characterization.

"I see there's a lot more parity in the league," he said, adding that the conference teams with the imposing records (Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State) have rosters that are "not that much different" than the teams below them in the SEC standings.

"Last year you had five or six NBA players on Florida's roster," Pearl noted. "They were clearly head and shoulders above the rest. I don't see any team (this year) being head and shoulders above anybody."

As for the idea that Tennessee is "the hunted" because of its budding reputation as a powerhouse, Pearl dismisses that suggestion out of hand.

"I don't see an SEC championship banner up there (in the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena) with this group," he said, smugly adding: "I don't see that ... unless it's there and it's behind some other banner."

Pearl routinely played the "no respect" card during his first two years as Tennessee's head coach. Even now he resorts to the tactic occasionally.

"We played on the first night of the (2007) SEC Tournament at 10-6, and Vanderbilt didn't," the coach said. "We had the second-best record in the conference, and we had to play the first night."

Clearly, Pearl is a master motivator. He always seems to find something he can use to push his team to give its best effort.

"I've got no problem getting this team ready to play," he said. "We'll get beat but it's not because we're going to get everybody's best shot. We're going to get beat because it's the nature of this game ... because there are really good teams out there that are well-coached and talented."

Pearl also dismisses the idea that the Vols may be unable to handle success.

"We will rarely beat ourselves," he said. "In 15 years as a head coach, I can count on one hand the number of times we may have lost a game because we weren't excited about playing. We'll be fine from that standpoint."

Although the Vol coach is flattered that several basketball experts are projecting Tennessee as a potential Final Four team, he says those projections essentially are worthless.

"The prediction just doesn't mean anything," he said. "Now, if we were defending SEC champions, that's a different story."

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