Now that the Tennessee Volunteers are No. 2 in country, coach Bruce Pearl feels he's their biggest weakness.
"You can list two or three dozen coaches who have got higher profiles and have won more championships than me," Pearl said. "It's a lot easier for a John Calipari, who was in the NBA and who got to a Final Four, to walk into a home and talk about all he's done when all I have to do is talk about what I'd like to do and what I think we can do."
Pearl's got the chance to prove he belongs in the ranks with Calipari when the Volunteers (24-2) travel to across state to take on Calipari's No. 1 Memphis Tigers (26-0) on Saturday.
Pearl's poor mouthing aside, he has taken a team that finished 14-17 in the 2004-05 season under former coach Buzz Peterson and vaulted it to the upper echelon of the SEC and college basketball.
According to senior guard Chris Lofton, who's been there every step of the way, Pearl made the players believe they belonged at the top.
"He has confidence in us, and he demands a lot from us," Lofton said. "He wants us to be successful, and he knows hard work is what it takes."
After going 86-38 in four seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl was hired to revive a struggling program. When he arrived on campus, he found himself coaching a team that in the eyes of fans ran far behind football and Lady Volunteers basketball.
"People said to me, 'What's it like being the third fiddle?' I said, 'Third? I'd die for third. We were like eighth. We were behind everybody," he said in his typical boisterous manner following practice. "So we've had to try to make some noise, so we could have a chance to recruit the kind of players we are recruiting now."
And boy, has Pearl been loud. First he donned a bright orange blazer, reminiscent of the jacket worn by revered Vols coach Ray Mears when he faced rivals Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Pearl then got so worked up during a Florida game that his sweat soaked through his entire suit. But perhaps the most memorable moment came last year at a Lady Vols game. Pearl, sans shirt, painted his torso orange with a light blue "V" to help spell out "GO VOLS" in a fan stunt with some of his players.
His methods seem to be working. Pearl lured J.P. Prince, who started his career at Arizona, and Tyler Smith, who was playing at Iowa, back to their home state.
His latest recruits include a 6-foot-10 center in Philip Jurick and 6-foot-8 wing in Orlando Woolridge -- both rated four stars by recruiting analysts.
Pearl's 70-21 overall record at Tennessee makes him the winningest Volunteer men's coach since 1916. Tennessee's No. 2 ranking is the highest the team has achieved in The Associated Press poll.
Even Calipari is impressed.
"Come on. It's hard there to do what he's doing with football, with women's basketball, with baseball," he said. "To make your niche is hard. He's made his niche, and I've got to give credit."
Pearl has also earned the respect of Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in the history of college basketball.
"Bruce has done a terrific job," she said. "They've been able to go on the road and win. I would say that's just the toughness of our team."
Pearl is hoping a win over Memphis would equal a top seed in the NCAA tournament. He's trying to take the Vols farther than they've gone before: at least to the regional finals and perhaps beyond.
He's also pushing them to win an SEC tournament title for the first time in 41 years. Pearl thinks the Vols are ready.
"The first thing three years ago was that I had to get my guys to believe in themselves and I had to see something in them that they didn't see in themselves. That's not the case now with this team," he said.
"When you first get some place and you've been down for so long, the perception is that 'these guys aren't there yet.' We're there and we're competing for it now."
Story Courtesy: AP Wire Reports & UT Sports Information
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