KNOXVILLE — Days after the Tennessee men’s basketball team beat then-No. 7 Villanova in Madison Square Garden for the NIT Season Tip-Off title, Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl pleaded with this team to avoid a letdown against Middle Tennessee State.
Mission accomplished. The Vols demolished MTSU.
Now, just three days after another “upset” win — a 83-76 victory over third-ranked Pittsburgh — Pearl is asking his seventh-ranked Vols (7-0) to avoid another letdown tonight against Oakland (5-5).
But the Golden Grizzlies seem like a more legitimate threat than MTSU.
Oakland, a public school located just north of Detroit, already has had several tries this season and has gradually gotten closer to beating a big program. It lost just 77-76 to then-No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday after somewhat-close losses to West Virginia, then-No. 9 Purdue and then-No. 17 Illinois.
Led by scoring point guard Reggie Hamilton and 6-foot-11 senior center Keith Benson, the Golden Grizzlies defeated Ohio — one of UT’s NCAA tournament opponents last season — in November.
“I still want them to feel good about themselves,” Pearl said of his Vols. “I want them to, because what happens is you don’t want to them lose that completely. At the same time, we’re trying to build some momentum, we’re trying to keep getting better. And obviously the opponent, their record against good teams speaks for itself.
“They’ve played West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, and the last three times they’ve played these teams they’ve been right there. They don’t have that marquee win yet.”
UT, which was ranked No. 9 or better on every Associated Press ballot this week, and No. 2 on two ballots, would certainly qualify as a marquee win.
“I don’t think we’ve taken teams lightly,” said junior guard Scotty Hopson, who again was named Southeastern Conference player of the week on Monday. “I think we understand who we’re playing going into a game and what we have to do to beat those great teams.
“We’re just executing Coach’s game plan, every day going out — just understanding what we’ve got to do and going out and executing.”
And that won’t change, Hopson added.
“We’re just keeping focused and handling that success and always understanding where we’re at as a team,” he said. “We know that we’ve beaten good teams, but we’ve still got a long way to go. I think this team has not even reached its boiling point of how far we can get and how good we can be.
“We want to play our best basketball in March, and right now we’re just focusing on getting better. It’s a process.”
Oakland is the next step, and senior center Brian Williams — who will draw a tough assignment tonight in Benson — said the Vols are ready.
“They’ve played five big-caliber teams, so they’re not going to be overwhelmed by the fans here or anything like that, and they’re going to be ready to play,” Williams said of the Golden Grizzlies. “They need a big-caliber win for their NCAA [resume], so I think they’re going to come in ready to play. This is the first time we’ve really seen them, but we’ve been working on them for two weeks now so we’re ready for them.”
Williams said the Vols’ solid practice Sunday night, less than 24 hours after the big win at Pitt, wouldn’t have happened in previous seasons.
“My freshman year we beat Memphis and came back just the same way on Tuesday and lost to Vandy because we didn’t pay attention to the scout, or we weren’t excited about playing,” Williams said. “I think we’re very excited about playing. We came out after the game and practiced real well and real hard, and we never really do that after a game.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.