KNOXVILLE -- As soon as Bruce Pearl saw this season's schedule, he thought, "Final Four."
No, not that Final Four.
Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers start a tough four-game stretch of Southeastern Conference basketball games ending their regular season tonight at Florida.
No. 19 UT (20-6, 8-4) seems a virtual shoo-in for the NCAA tournament, though Pearl doesn't seem so sure. But Florida (19-8, 8-4) unquestionably is a bubble team, and a win tonight would certainly boost its chances to make the tournament for the first time in three seasons.
"It's not about the past. It's about right now," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who is 1-8 against Pearl. "Everyone wants to go to the NCAA tournament. That's everybody's goal. There's 12 teams in our league that want to make that happen.
"Some teams are obviously in better shape than others, and other teams are trying to work their way in."
Two consecutive Selection Sunday disappointments have prevented Pearl from being overly optimistic about his team's NCAA fate. The Vols expected better seeds than a No. 2 and a No. 9 the past two seasons. Their RPI ranking and strength of schedule two years ago remain the best for a non-No. 1 seed since 1985, and they won the SEC Eastern Division last year.
"I still think we're playing to get in," Pearl said Monday afternoon. "I think you look around the country and there's a lot of good teams out there and a lot of basketball left. We'll take them one at a time. You just don't want to be in a position where you're not in control of your own destiny, so I think we've got to continue to approach these games like we're playing to get in.
"I think the last two Selection Sundays have been just OK. Last year, as SEC East champions, we were a No. 9 seed. Nine gets pretty close to 12 or 13, and those teams are the last teams in the tournament. We've got to keep playing."
UT hosts second-ranked Kentucky (26-1, 11-1) on Saturday and faces SEC West leaders Arkansas (14-13, 7-5) and Mississippi State (19-8, 7-5) next week.
"I've been on the other end, where there's just nothing in front of you short of your conference tournament to get you in, and there just isn't a team with a high enough RPI to get you in off that bubble," Pearl said. "I guess I'd rather be in a position where you're in control of your own destiny, even though it's against some great teams in some tough venues. I think if you look at it any other way, it's not going to do us any good.
"You have to put yourself in the right frame of mind, because you can make the argument that it doesn't get any tougher than this ... but I don't look at it that way. I look at it as each of these games afford us the opportunity to get in, and to improve our seeding, and to challenge us to play our best basketball -- because if we don't, we'll get exposed.
"You put up with a lot of games all year long to put yourself in position to play games like this."
And winning games like this can be a great emotional lift heading into the postseason, UT senior forward Wayne Chism said.
"It gives you a lot of confidence if you can beat the best teams at the end of the year," said Chism, who Monday was named SEC player of the week. "It's a long season, and if you can pull out the best wins at the end of the season, that shows you your team has come a long way."
Chism said UT has improved since its last win over the Gators, but video study showed the Vols how much better Florida is playing, too.
"You can say they match up with every big man on the inside that we have, and any other team," Chism said. "They're all playing hard down in there, so I think to play them we've got to battle against those guys."
Florida has shown its toughness in come-from-behind wins. The Gators are 5-3 this season when trailing at halftime after going 1-7 last season in similar circumstances.
"Chemistry, confidence, toughness, size," Pearl said when asked to explain Florida's turnaround. "Greater confidence and greater chemistry have helped them. They're playing really well right now. They really are."
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