'Step-up time'

Glib guy that he is, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl already found four words to summarize the second-ranked Vols' upcoming showdown against top-ranked and unbeaten Memphis:

"It's step-up time."

That line may lack the lyrical quality of "The Thrilla in Manila" but it certainly captures the essence of the first ever 1 vs. 2 match-up involving teams from the Volunteer State. The eyes of the college basketball world will be focused on the FedEx Forum Saturday night as Pearl's Vols and John Calipari's Tigers collide in a game with national championship ramifications.

Memphis brings a 26-0 record into the fray. Tennessee comes in 24-2. It gets no better than that.

"It's time to step up," Pearl said. "Everybody's going to be challenged. I'm going to be challenged. Each player is going to be challenged. We're going to be challenged by the environment … all the attention. We, as a group, have to step up."

There is no greater challenge than playing the top-ranked team in America on its home court. If the Vols win, they will be ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history next week. If they play well and lose, they will solidify their claim to elite status. If they lose handily, they will be denounced as pretenders by a national TV audience.

"It will be a great measuring stick," Pearl said, adding that the FedEx Forum will be the "toughest environment" Tennessee has encountered this season.

Is the Vols' head man wired? Yes. But that's no big deal. He's wired for every game.

"I'm not going to be any different for Memphis than I am all the time," Pearl said. "I'm not going to be any different in my preparation.

"Our guys are going to get the same from me. It's not like ‘Coach is a little on edge this week for Memphis.' Coach is ALWAYS on edge.

"And I am for that reason: I don't want them to see a different me in a big ball game."

Though rare, late-season matchups between in-state rivals ranked 1 and 2 are not unprecedented. But they usually involve traditional powers such as Duke vs. North Carolina, Indiana vs. Purdue, Ohio State vs. Cincinnati or Kentucky vs. Louisville … not Tennessee vs. Memphis.

"This weekend is a celebration for Tennessee basketball," Pearl said. "These events are reserved for Tobacco Row or someone in Indiana or Ohio. It's wonderful."

The Vol coach typically finds a way to praise every UT opponent. He needed very little searching to find ways to praise the towering and talented Tigers.

"This is a Final Four team," he said. "This team is built to be in the Final Four and to play for a national championship. To play them in Memphis under these circumstances … there won't be a more challenging game for us."

Once the hyperbole started flowing, Pearl was unable to stop it. In addition to Saturday's game at Memphis, he began an advance hyping of next Tuesday's game at Vanderbilt.

"Who are we going to play at a neutral site in the NCAA Tournament in the first few games that is going to come anywhere near what we're going to see at Memphis and at Vanderbilt? This is definitely a look ahead to what we're going to need to do to advance in the tournament.

"It's step-up time."


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