UT plays best vs. best

It wasn't Bruce Pearl's orange jacket that reminded Tennessee's basketball players they were facing Kentucky this weekend. It was Pearl's red face.

It seems the Vols' head man gets extra fiery when he's preparing his team for a really big game, and that fire shows up in his cheeks. When Tennessee hosted No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10 and when it hosted No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday, the importance of those games was all over Pearl's face.

"You can tell; he'll be red," senior post Wayne Chism said. "Before big games he'll be red. He's red in the game, after the game, before the game, the week before the game. If it's just an OK game, a regular SEC game, he's not red at all."

Apparently, the Vol head man does his best coaching when he's red-faced. He stands 4-2 against teams ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 nationally at the time and exhibits a real knack for rising to the occasion against superior opponents. Consider:

- Pearl's sixth game at the Big Orange helm saw his unranked 2005-06 team shock No. 6 Texas 95-78 in Austin. That Vol squad subsequently swept a Florida team that was on its way to the '06 national title.

- Pearl's 2006-07 team won by 10 against a fifth-ranked Florida squad that was headed for another NCAA championship. That UT team also suffered two-point and one-point losses to an Ohio State team that would be national runnerup that year.

- Pearl's 2007-08 team posted a monumental road win against a Memphis squad that was ranked No. 1 at the time and bound for the Final Four title game.

- Pearl's 2009-10 team already beat No. 1 Kansas in January and beat No. 2 Kentucky in February.

"We beat two No. 1 seeds," the coach noted following Saturday's big win. "Nobody else in the country has done that. But Tennessee has done that.... We've been asked to have a competitive basketball program at Tennessee. That's been delivered, and we take great pride in that."

The obvious question: Why does Tennessee tend to play its best games against the best competition?

"Obviously, great players want to play against other great players," Pearl said following the Kentucky game. "You want to step up against the best coaches you go up against. And our fans were all excited about this one. How many days had we looked forward to this game? It was exciting. It wouldn't be this exciting if it was a different opponent."

Sophomore guard Scotty Hopson conceded that Tennessee reached an emotional peak against Kentucky similar to the one it reached against Kansas nearly seven weeks earlier. Clearly, facing a fabled foe brings out the best in the Vols.

"Definitely," Hopson said. "Just like when we beat Kansas, it lifts our team and gets us confident."

PEARL VS. TOP 10 TEAMS

Dec. 17, 2005: Tennessee 85, No. 6 Texas 78 (Austin)

Jan. 18, 2006: No. 4 Memphis 88, Tennessee 79 (Memphis)

Jan. 21, 2006: Tennessee 80, No. 2 Florida 76 (Knoxville)

Nov. 24, 2006: No. 2 North Carolina 101, Tennessee 87 (New York)

Jan. 13, 2007: No. 5 Ohio State 68, Tennessee 66 (Columbus)

Feb. 3, 2007: No. 1 Florida 94, Tennessee 78 (Gainesville)

Feb. 27, 2007: Tennessee 86, No. 5 Florida 76 (Knoxville)

Feb. 23, 2008: Tennessee 66, No. 1 Memphis 62 (Memphis)

Nov. 23, 2009: No. 6 Purdue 73, Tennessee 72 (Virgin Islands)

Jan. 10, 2010: Tennessee 76, No. 1 Kansas 68 (Knoxville)

Feb. 13, 2010: No. 3 Kentucky 73, Tennessee 62 (Lexington)

Feb. 27, 2010: Tennessee 74, No. 2 Kentucky 65 (Knoxville)


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