Pearl previews the NIT opener against Belmont
Tennessee senior post Brian Williams had been counting on a homecoming of sorts via the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament.
"It was something I'd been looking forward to for a long time,'' said Williams, who hails from the Bronx. "I didn't realize we had to win games to get there.''
The 24th-ranked Vols will need to win them against hungry, quality mid-major programs, beginning with Belmont tonight (TV: ESPNU, 9:30 p.m.).
It's the second game of a doubleheader at Thompson-Boling Arena. Arkansas State (0-1) and Missouri State (1-0) play in the opener at 7.
The winners and losers of tonight's games will meet Wednesday at 7 p.m. and 9:30. UT (1-0) will play in the 7 p.m. game regardless of tonight's outcome.
UT coach Bruce Pearl, whose team needs to win both games to advance to play at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Nov. 24 in the tournament's semifinals, isn't assuming anything.
"We'll have to play better to beat Belmont than we did Friday to beat Chattanooga,'' said Pearl, whose team opened the season with an 82-62 win over the Mocs. "Belmont is a really good defensive team. They're well-coached, deep and physical.''
Coached by Knoxville native Rick Byrd, who once served as a student assistant to legendary Vols coach Ray Mears, the Bruins (0-0) have won a share of three of the past five Atlantic Sun Conference titles.
Pearl says he knows what's going through the minds of Byrd and his players.
"Having been on the other side of this fence, I know what their mindset is,'' said Pearl, who coached at Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Horizon League prior to taking the UT job six years ago. "They can't guarantee they'll win their conference tournament, so they have to have a resume where there are enough non-conference wins to get an at-large bid.
"These three teams (Belmont, Arkansas State and Missouri State) are playing for their NCAA tournament lives.''
And they won't be holding anything back, according to UT senior transfer John Fields, who played at mid-major schools East Carolina (Conference USA) and UNC-Wilmington (Colonial Athletic Association).
"Those guys are coming in with a chip on their shoulder,'' Fields said. "I remember when I played at mid-majors, and when we came in to play big schools we wanted to put it on them.''
Pearl said each of the four teams in the Knoxville Region are capable of advancing to New York City.
"When we played in the (preseason) NIT the last time (2006), Fordham and Wilmington in Nashville were not as good as these teams here,'' Pearl said. "Don't circle (NIT regional hosts) Tennessee, Wake Forest, UCLA and Villanova just yet.
"This is the best field they've ever attracted.''
Lineup Details: Pearl said he'll continue to start Williams at the post and maintain a 10-man rotation.
Williams struggled the past two games, making just 1 of 5 shots through 44 minutes of action.
"I want him to want the ball more,'' Pearl said. "We've got to get him more touches, and he's got to want it more.''
Williams said he's adjusting.
"I just need to get more aggressive,'' Williams said. "Everyone we've played so far has been doubling down on the post.''
Poll Streak: The Vols extended their streak of consecutive weeks ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll to 21.
Pearl is pleased his team remains ranked, even if he doesn't believe they are necessarily worthy at this point.
"That's great we're still in there,'' said Pearl, whose teams from 2007-09 set the school record with 32 straight weeks in the AP Top 25. "I don't think right now we're one of the top 25 teams in the country. I don't think we're playing at that level yet. I think we can be.
"But taking us just where we are right now, we're not one of the top 25 teams in the country right now.''