DAYTON, Ohio - Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl likes to say the cream rises to the top at the end of the season.
"Do we have enough cream for Oklahoma State?'' Pearl said Wednesday. "We've clearly played our best basketball in March.''
The Vols (21-12) will need more of their best when they meet the Cowboys (22-11) at 12:25 p.m. Friday (TV: WVLT) in a first-round NCAA East Regional game at University of Dayton Arena.
Pearl predicted before this season started that this UT team could be better equipped to make a run in the men's NCAA tournament than his other Vols' teams because of its depth and size.
To date, this edition has proven to be a more efficient tournament team, going 4-2 in tournaments. UT was 2-1 at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., over Thanksgiving weekend and won two of three in the SEC tournament last weekend in Tampa, Fla.
Pearl's first UT team was 1-2 in tournament play, his second was 2-4, and last season's Vols were 4-3 in neutral court tournaments.
"We've been a good road team and a good neutral court team this season,'' Pearl said. "That suggests your style of play doesn't need to be energized by a home crowd.''
The Vols of Pearl's first three seasons fed off turnovers and quick scoring bursts. Runs of eight to 12 points took place over the period of a minute or two.
A stolen inbounds pass here, an effective backcourt trap there mixed in with a couple of Chris Lofton 3s and a Jajuan Smith dunk ... and before you knew it, the Vols had extended a lead or overcome a deficit.
"Our margin of victories have been closer this season because we haven't turned people over as much,'' said Pearl, who has had abandoned the press for the better part of this season. "We haven't been able to dominate opponents.
"We've had to find other ways to defend and score.''
That's led to Tennessee looking very much like the work in process it has been.
Instead of relying on one style and making adjustments, the 2008-09 Vols - featuring five newcomers - have had to change their gameplan for each opponent.
That's what Pearl was doing again Wednesday night in the Mills-Morgan Center on the campus of Wright State University.
"We went at it hard today, and the scout team did a good job,'' said Pearl, whose team bused the five hours to Dayton. "Tanner Wild did a good job as (guard) Byron Eaton, but Eaton's a little bit better.
"Steven Pearl did a good job as (guard) James Anderson, but Anderson is better.''
Pearl's sarcasm was intended to make the point that the scout team can only emulate the opponent so well.
"Our team will be ready after tomorrow's (today) practice,'' Pearl said. "We watched our breakdown film of Oklahoma State today, so the kids have seen them, and then today they practiced against what they do.''
Junior J.P. Prince said one advantage UT has in non-conference tournament play is teams have a hard time preparing for the Vols.
"It's not the same teams you see two or three times a year, so they don't know you as well and defenses play you more honest,'' Prince said.
Junior Wayne Chism points to experience.
"I believe we are better equipped for tournament ball,'' Chism said. "We've had a lot of experience with it, and so most of us come into this knowing what to expect.''
Junior Josh Tabb said the Vols' tournament success has given them the confidence they need to compete in what UT views as a four-team tournament this weekend.
"We came so close to winning it in Orlando, and then again on Sunday, it's a confidence builder,'' Tabb said. "We know we can play with anyone in the country when we're playing well.
"There's a chemistry we have now.''
Pearl said he has conducted this year's tournament trips very much like he did his first three years.
"I like to stay consistent with how we practice, how long we practice, our meetings, when we eat and what we eat,'' Pearl said. "I try to maintain the same intensity all season.
"I don't want them to see me as being any different or have things any different than our other trips.''
Especially if it means the Vols will win two games in a row to open this tournament like they did the ones in Orlando and Tampa.