KNOXVILLE - Bruce Pearl didn't mince his words.
The Tennessee men's basketball coach knows his Volunteers face a must-win game today at noon against visiting Vanderbilt, but Pearl isn't trying to lessen the magnitude of just the third Southeastern Conference game of the season.
"Why wouldn't we feel like tomorrow we're playing for a conference championship?" Pearl said after Friday's practice. "Because Vanderbilt's a team that is going to compete for it [and] we're a team that competes for it. You can't look back, you've got to look forward, and we've got to play like our lives depended on it."
Tennessee is 10-6 overall, 0-2 in the SEC. The Commodores are 12-3, 1-1.
"We need this victory," Vols senior center Brian Williams said. "We need a victory at home. We need an SEC win. Everything about this game we need. I don't know how else you're going to put it."
Said freshman forward Tobias Harris: "Every game we play is a must-win, but there's a lot more added pressure since we're 0-2. I came here to win a national championship, and that's what I want to do. We have totally the right talent and personnel; we've just got to put it all together."
Putting it all together against Vanderbilt won't be easy. The Commodores can attack UT's struggling defense on the perimeter with sharpshooter John Jenkins or go inside with Jeffery Taylor's athleticism and Festus Ezeli's physicality.
Brad Tinsley, the SEC's assists leader, has eased the loss of All-SEC point guard Jermaine Beal. Vanderbilt was picked fifth in the SEC East in the preseason.
"I knew that wasn't right," Williams said. "They've got every aspect of the game you need to win. They were the best team coming in besides us in my opinion."
Pearl felt the Vols showed progress Tuesday night despite losing to Florida but warned, "We've got to play better against Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt is a more physical team and a tough cover. They'll guard us well; our play in transition is going to be very important."
Pearl talked about relaying a sense of urgency to his team in practice this week, but with ESPN's "College GameDay" crew in town and at practice, he's not going to sell a mid-January game short.
"I'm much more 'It is what it is,'" Pearl said. "I'd rather not hide behind, well, let's not tell them this is a very important game because that way they'll have more confidence.
"My biggest focus is are we playing for a championship? Are we planning on winning the SEC East? If we are, we've got to win this game. That's all there is to it. If that's pressure, well, welcome to the real world."
Pearl's players have identified throughout the week the situation that's facing them. Falling into an 0-3 hole isn't where they want to be, and they're well aware of what a loss today could mean for the rest of the season.
"It's a big game for us to take a step in the right [direction]," Harris said. "I think everybody on the team wants this one."