Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl knows it’s natural for any team to suffer a letdown coming off an emotional victory.
But he hopes the No. 16 Volunteers (21-7, 9-5 Southeastern Conference) instead can use their 74-65 win over then-No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday to build some momentum during the final week of the regular season.
“It’s now time to see if Tennessee can start to play its best basketball heading into postseason,” Pearl said Monday.
Tennessee, which moved up three spots in the AP poll Monday after its second victory this season against a top five team, will play its home finale Wednesday against Arkansas (14-15, 7-7) before finishing the regular season Saturday at Mississippi State (21-8, 9-5).
Pearl said the Vols’ upset of the Wildcats was a “really important win for our program, putting us in better position for the NCAA tournament and better position for the SEC tournament.”
Now he wants to make the most of it. The team went back to work Monday with Pearl asking his players for more intensity in their morning workout before putting them through what he said was one of the hardest practices of the season.
“We’re going to try to pick up the pace a little bit, see if we can’t capitalize, build some momentum,” Pearl said.
Tennessee now has won 21 games or more in each of Pearl’s first five seasons, but the Vols have endured a few early postseason losses in recent years.
They dropped their first two SEC tournament openers under Pearl before reaching the semifinals in 2008 for the first time in 17 years. They lost in the championship game last year against Mississippi State before falling to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Pearl thinks this season could be different with three seniors - Bobby Maze, J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism - currently in the starting lineup. Last year, Tennessee’s only senior was reserve forward Ryan Childress.
“You fight and claw and scratch just a little bit differently with seniors,” Pearl said. “It matters just a little bit more to them and everybody. It matters always, but there’s just a little different edge there. … I feel positively about our chance to finish well because we have some seniors and the emotion that can maybe make a little difference.”
The Vols gave Pearl a few reasons for optimism against Kentucky. He said it was encouraging to see Tennessee hand the Wildcats their second loss of the year despite getting only eight points and six rebounds from Chism, who’s averaging 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in SEC games.
It was similar to the Vols’ upset of then-No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10, when Chism and Prince spent much of the game on the bench because of foul trouble.
Prince picked up the slack against Kentucky with a game-high 20 points and two 3-pointers.
“They weren’t discouraged at all, so I’m glad that they all stepped up,” Chism said of his teammates. “They step up every time.”