NEW YORK - Two programs are taking a self-perceived "big step up" in tonight's Tennessee-Virginia Commonwealth men's basketball game.
The Rams (3-0) and the 24th-ranked Vols (3-0) meet at 7 p.m. (TV: ESPN2) in the first game of the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. UCLA (3-0) and Villanova (3-0) follow in the other semifinal, with the consolation game set for 2:30 and the championship following at 5 on Friday.
"After we beat Wake Forest I told our team we're taking a big step up,'' said VCU coach Shaka Smart, whose Rams upset Wake Forest, 90-69, on Nov. 16 to reach the semifinals. "We're playing in the heavyweight division now.''
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said he's not so sure his Vols are ready to play like contenders, particularly against an experienced team like VCU, which returns four starters from last season's 27-win team.
"The key is going to be how well we play together,'' Pearl said. "The level of explosiveness and athleticism VCU has is something we haven't seen, and we have to be careful they don't run away from us.
"This is a big step up for us.''
UT will take that step with senior Melvin Goins at point guard.
Goins suffered a deep side contusion in a Nov. 12 win over Chattanooga and re-injured it on Nov. 16 in the second half of a win over Belmont.
Goins missed last Wednesday's win over Missouri State as well as practices the remainder of the week. He returned to practice Sunday, but Pearl had been listing Goins' status as "day-to-day" for tonight's game.
"Melvin will start for us, and I thought he looked good in practice today,'' Pearl said following the Vols' 2 1/2-hour practice at the Palladium Athletic Facility at New York University on Tuesday.
"Trae (Golden) has done a great job for us, but Melvin is quite a competitor and he's a senior.''
Smart, who served as an assistant coach to Florida's Billy Donovan in 2008-09, isn't underestimating the Vols.
"The thing that impressed me about Coach Pearl and his team is that they played with such great confidence,'' Smart said. "You would have thought they believed they could beat the (Los Angeles) Lakers.''
Smart has confidence in his team's style, as well.
"We call our style 'Havoc' " Smart said. "We've got four or five different presses, and we try to force tempo and get teams playing differently then they are used to playing.
"Tennessee is used to playing pretty fast, so it should be pretty entertaining for the fans and the players.''
Trophy Hunting: Pearl has yet to win an exempt tournament with the Vols.
UT went 0-2 in his first trip to Madison Square Garden with the Vols in the 2006 Season Tip-Off, losing to Butler (56-44) and North Carolina (101-87).
In 2007, UT split a pair of games at the Legends Classic in Newark, N.J., beating West Virginia (74-72) before falling to Texas (97-78) in the title game.
The Vols went 2-1 at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., in 2008, beating Siena (78-64) and Georgetown (90-78) before falling to Gonzaga (83-74) in the championship game.
Last season, the Vols beat East Carolina (105-66) and DePaul (57-53) in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, but lost in the Paradise Jam title game to Purdue (73-72).