Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl said the 2009-10 schedule is challenging enough to prepare the Vols for a long run into the NCAA tournament.
"There's no question our roster is set up for us to challenge for the SEC championship again and have our deepest tournament run yet,'' said Pearl, whose Vols return all five starters off last year's East Division-winning squad. "This is a schedule that will prepare us. Wherever the bar is set, we'll rise to that level.''
Pearl said he sees parallels to last season's schedule, which ranked as the third-toughest in the nation according to the RPI ratings.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'' said Pearl. "We lose Gonzaga, we pick up USC; in stead of playing in the Disney tournament, we're going to St. Thomas.''
UT tips off with an Oct. 30 home exhibition against North Alabama.
The Vols open the Paradise Jam tournament Nov. 20 with East Carolina before a potential showdown with Northern Iowa and either Purdue or Boston College in the tournament finale.
"We're still playing a game in Nashville against Middle (Tennessee),'' Pearl said, "and we're getting in-state opponents and mid-major conference champions on our schedule.''
The Vols added Southern Cal, College of Charleston, East Tennessee State, Wyoming, Austin Peay, Charlotte and North Carolina A&T to the schedule this season.
Gone are Gonzaga, Marquette, Temple, Belmont, UT Martin, Chattanooga and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Kansas and Memphis remain, with the Jayhawks playing the marquee game in Thompson-Boling Arena at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 10. The Vols play the Tigers in Memphis on Dec. 31.
While the non-conference schedule remains equally difficult - save no parallel for Marquette, which it played and beat as part of the SEC-Big East Challenge - the SEC itself figures to be much better.
"You can pick any one of five different teams in the SEC East and they'll be in the NCAA tournament; and out West, Mississippi State has a front line that's bigger than most NBA teams,'' Pearl said. "We are obviously going to need to get off to a fast start.''
The Vols open SEC play with back-to-back home games against Auburn (Jan. 14) and Ole Miss (Jan. 16) before road games at Alabama and Georgia.
February has a challenging stretch of seven games that includes five road games against SEC East competition.
"I would prefer to travel in January when our students are gone and play more home games in February when they can be there,'' Pearl said. "But we've demonstrated we can go on the road and be competitive in February and March.
"Last year, we were written out of the race until we went on the road and beat Florida and South Carolina to win the East.''
The SEC's new television package increases the exposure for all the league teams, but Pearl's particularly pleased with UT's national appearances.
"ESPN College GameDay has been in existence for basketball for three years, and for three straight years we've been on it,'' Pearl said, alluding to UT's game at Kentucky on Feb. 13. "I think our fans are proud of the fact that CBS and ESPN recognize we're somebody worth watching.''
The Vols have nationally televised CBS games at home on Jan. 31 against Florida and Feb. 27 against Kentucky.
UT's New Year's Eve game at Memphis will also be on CBS although no game time has been set.
All Present: Pearl said all of his players reported without complication Wednesday.
"We did our speed, agility and conditioning testing today,'' said Pearl on Thursday. "We'll do our strength testing (later Thursday) and report for workouts at 6:30 a.m. Monday.''
Tennessee men’s basketball schedule for 2009-2010.
— Oct. 30, North Alabama (exhibition), 7:30 p.m.
— Nov. 4, Lincoln Memorial (exhibition), 7:30 p.m.
— Nov. 13, Austin Peay, 7:30 p.m.
— Nov. 17, UNC Asheville, 7:30 p.m.
— Nov. 20, East Carolina at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam), 3:30 p.m.
— Nov. 21/22 DePaul or Northern Iowa at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam), 6 p.m.
— Nov. 23, To be announced at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam), TBA.
— Nov. 27, College of Charleston, 7:30 p.m.
— Dec. 2, East Tennessee State, 7:30 p.m.
— Dec. 11, Middle Tennessee at Nashville (Sun Belt Classic), 7 p.m.
— Dec. 15, Wyoming, 7 p.m.
— Dec. 19, at Southern California, TBA.
— Dec. 23, North Carolina A&T, 7:30 p.m.
— Dec. 31, at Memphis, CBS, TBA.
— Jan. 6, Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.
— Jan. 10, Kansas, CBS, 1:30 p.m.
— Jan. 14, Auburn, ESPN/ESPN2, 7 p.m.
— Jan. 16, Ole Miss, SEC Network, 1:30 p.m.
— Jan. 19, at Alabama, ESPN, 7 p.m.
— Jan. 23, at Georgia, FSN South, 5 p.m.
— Jan. 27, Vanderbilt, ESPNU, 7 p.m.
— Jan. 31, Florida, CBS, 1 p.m.
— Feb. 4, at LSU, ESPN/ESPN2, 9 p.m.
— Feb. 6, South Carolina, ESPN, 6 p.m.
— Feb. 9, at Vanderbilt, ESPN, 7 p.m.
— Feb. 13, at Kentucky, ESPN, 9 p.m.
— Feb. 17, Georgia, SEC Network, 8 p.m.
— Feb. 20, at South Carolina, SEC Network, 1:30 p.m.
— Feb. 23, at Florida, ESPN, 9 p.m.
— Feb. 27, Kentucky, CBS, Noon.
— March 3, Arkansas, CSS, 7 p.m.
— March 6, at Mississippi State, ESPN, 6 p.m.
— March 11-14, SEC Tournament in Nashville.
— March 18 and 20, NCAA first and second rounds in New Orleans; Providence, R.I.; San Jose, Calif.; and Spokane, Wash.
— March 19 and 21, NCAA first and second rounds in Buffalo, N.Y.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Milwaukee and Oklahoma City.
— March 25 and 27, NCAA Regionals in Syracuse, N.Y., and Salt Lake City.
— March 26 and 28, NCAA Regionals in St. Louis and Houston.
— April 3 and 5, NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis.