The Sports Page
The Tennessee men's basketball team has received its highest ranking in the history of the program, coming in at No. 3 in Monday's Associated Press poll.
But before anyone gets caught up in the hoopla - his players included - coach Bruce Pearl has a simple message: "It (the ranking) won't help us beat Kentucky.''
Tennessee (16-1 overall, 3-0 SEC) will put its 11-game win streak on the line at 9 o'clock tonight at Rupp Arena against the Wildcats (7-9, 1-2).
"It's a game where both teams will throw their records out the window and play hard,'' UT senior JaJuan Smith said.
"It's gonna be tough,'' Vols' senior Chris Lofton added.
Despite Kentucky's struggles - with a loss tonight the Wildcats will be off to their worst start in 80 years - Pearl sees a team on the brink of a turnaround.
"We're playing a Kentucky team that is improved and playing their best basketball,'' he said. "This is a much more confident Kentucky team than it was a few weeks ago. Their kids are playing to their strengths.''
The Wildcats opened SEC play with a 79-73 double-overtime win over Vanderbilt before falling on the road to SEC West Division leader Mississippi State (69-64) and at Florida in overtime (81-70).
Pearl sees past the results.
"They are believing in their coach and what they do and buying in,'' Pearl said.
Meanwhile, Pearl is believing in Lofton, who has a strong history against his home-state school, particularly in Rupp Arena where he has hit 12 of 19 (.632) of his 3-pointers and averaged 24 points in two games.
"I'd like to see Chris get open more,'' Pearl said. "It's something I've always been on Chris for. He'll be excited about playing there because he's won a state championship there and he's closer to home.''
Lofton was among the Vols getting extra shots Monday morning before the team watched film and boarded a bus for Lexington, where they held their walk-through.
Informed he needed five 3-pointers to set the SEC's career mark, Lofton smiled.
"Is that what it is?'' he said. "Well, I just want to win.''
So does Pearl, who sits 2-2 against Kentucky 2 1/2 years after taking over at Tennessee and proclaiming he wanted to make the series a rivalry once more.
"You have to become competitive with them before there can be a rivalry,'' said Pearl, who wears an orange sports coat in honor of the late Ray Mears in UT games against rivals Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
So how does a .500 record against the Wildcats sit with Pearl?
"We're competitive,'' Pearl said, pausing for a moment with a lips-pursed smile before continuing. "Nice try, though.''
Pearl made it clear his success against Kentucky is still a barometer of sorts.
"It is still Kentucky,'' he said. "Kentucky is it - and no slight on Vandy or Florida - and it will always be still Kentucky out of great respect for their program, fans and history.''
Keeping Tabb: Pearl said he can see situations where Josh Tabb plays, even though the sophomore has been out of the nine-man rotation since J.P. Prince became eligible in mid-Decemeber.
"Josh has done a wonderful job staying ready, and his attitude has been tremendous,'' Pearl said. "It's wonderful to hear from fans and other people … he's still being talked about.''
Ramarkable: Through three SEC games, Ramar Smith is the SEC's leading free-throw shooter in conference games, making 14 of 15.
"I guess it took me going 0-for-12 to start shooting about 1,000 a day,'' Smith said, referring to his bizarre performance in November against Prairie View A&M. "I shoot so many now, it's ridiculous.''
Wildcat Visited Vols: Wildcats freshman forward Patrick Patterson was one of the first players Pearl set his sights on after taking over at UT.
"He was one of the first people to visit Tennessee when I first got here, but when it came down to his top five, Tennessee was nowhere to be found,'' Pearl said. "Our program just wasn't there yet.
"I've been extremely impressed with him.''
Patterson ranks in the SEC's top 10 in scoring (16.6 points per game) and rebounding (8 per game).
Billy's Take: First-year Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie didn't have much to say about the Vols' rivalry and Pearl's respect for the Wildcats at SEC Media Days in October, and apparently still didn't when interviewed by the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday night.
When asked what he thought of Pearl wearing an orange jacket against Kentucky, Gillispie said he thought Pearl wore it every game and added, "That's good for Coach Pearl.''
Asked if he would wear an electric blue jacket, Gillispie sidestepped the question and repeated, "I think that's good for Coach Pearl. I think it's great.''
Gillespie said he's "excited'' about the rivalry.
"Rupp's by far the best place to play,'' he said. "The excitement, the electricity. I think there's a lot of hatred among the fans. That's the type of game that makes college athletics.''
Pearl pointed out Monday he wants Tennessee fans to know there are still tickets available for the game.
Some Respect: Kentucky senior Joe Crawford didn't mind paying the Vols some respect.
"Tennessee is much better than Florida,'' Crawford said. "They have four or five different guys who can start the offense for them.''