Win and you're in. This cliché phrase surfaces in commentary of conference tournament championships in men's college basketball every March. This is also a mantra that the Volunteers (17-12, 7-7 SEC) will have to play to on Sunday against No. 23 Kentucky (21-8 9-6 SEC), as well as during the SEC Tournament next week.
There's nothing cliché about the situation that Bruce Pearl's team finds themselves. The Vols' inconsistency has recently overshadowed quality wins against Big East foes and in-state rivals, jeopardizing the head coach's streak of at least 20-wins and a NCAA Tournament birth. However, a win at home on Sunday against the Wildcats would seemingly add a final, positive dimension to a tournament resume that will be highly scrutinized.
Pearl recognized the importance of this weekend and its effect on the Vols' Big Dance hopes.
"I feel like any time you're in a situation where we're in, we're going to be (on the bubble)," Pearl said. "Whether we're in or not, I don't get involved in all that, but certainly we have more work to do to make sure that we're in.
"We're trying to do something that's not been done ever in the history of Tennessee basketball, and that's go to six straight NCAA tournaments."
The Vols have a chance to sneak into the number two seed for the east in the SEC Tournament with a win on Sunday and some help, but they might have to conquer that feat on Sunday without Brian Williams, who is battling back soreness.
In the first meeting between the Big Orange and the Wildcats, surges by Kentucky in the first and second half widened a lead that proved insurmountable for Tennessee, as Kentucky won 73-61. The Vols successfully focused on stifling a pair of standout freshman, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight, but were subsequently burned by career performances from a pair of typically inconspicuous upperclassmen, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson.
Pearl's squad will need to find a defensive balance on Sunday and minimize the uncharacteristic amount of turnovers produced against Kentucky in the first meeting. Pearl has recently questioned the leadership within the team, but he does not question the resolve.
"There's nothing that would surprise me as it relates to whether or not this team couldn't get it going again." Pearl commented. "Certainly nobody expected us to beat Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt. You could look at both games this week and go, 'It's going to be hard to win at South Carolina. It's going to be hard to beat Kentucky at home unless we play better at home.'
"But we're capable, and we're still obviously in position."
Pearl's call for heightened leadership must be answered quickly. The team and its fans will look to Scotty Hopson to steer the often array ship that is Volunteer basketball this weekend, while continuing his stellar play on the court. Hopson's perspective on leadership and the current standing of team is transparent.
"I put the blame on myself as much as anything, we're just not as consistent as we need be." Hopson offered. "Guys know what we're capable of, we've all seen it. This team is capable of playing at a high level but we've been our own worst enemies at times."