KNOXVILLE -- Forget Tennessee's 65-60 overtime loss to Alabama on Saturday evening, head-scratching though it might be. Forget, too, that this was the Volunteers' second OT defeat on home hardwood in this Southeastern Conference basketball season.
Both of those facts may indeed be important as UT attempts to stay in the hunt for an SEC East championship halfway through the conference season. As is the fact that leading scorer Scotty Hopson missed his second straight start with a high ankle sprain.
But what most of the Big Orange Nation is anxiously anticipating arrives Tuesday night at Kentucky's Rupp Arena. UT coach Bruce Pearl returns from his eight-game league suspension just in time to slip on that neon orange blazer against the Wildcats.
Or as Vols junior guard Cameron Tatum said when asked if Pearl's return could be any better timed: "No, it couldn't."
Tatum wasn't delivering a dig to the coaching of interim head coach Tony Jones, who finished 5-3 in those eight games while Pearl was 0-1 in his lone turn in Seat No. 1 at Connecticut.
"Coach [Jones] did a great job," Tatum said. "I think the whole staff did. They put us in a position to win every game. Just look at today."
Tatum was right. Down 38-27 after Bama shot 67 percent from the floor in the opening half, the Vols actually grabbed the lead with 9:32 to go in regulation on a jump shot from freshman Tobias Harris.
Beyond that, UT's defense held the Tide without a single field goal in the final 4:29 of regulation and all of the overtime. Bama's final 10 points, all in OT, all came from the foul line -- on 10 attempts.
But inside the final minute of both regulation and overtime, with chances to win and then to tie, the Vols came up empty -- and didn't look terribly sharp in either instance.
"We just didn't do what we needed to do offensively," said Harris, who led UT with 19 points and 11 rebounds, his seventh double-double of the season. "[When we got the lead] we should have taken them out right then."
But they didn't. Just as Kentucky couldn't take Bama out in Tuscaloosa in January after a withering comeback. Just as 10 of the last 11 teams to play the top defensive team in the SEC have come up short against the Tide.
The Tide may or may not make the NCAA tournament at this point, thanks to an RPI over 100 and a strength-of-schedule around 150. But now 7-1 in the league halfway along -- and 3-0 against the supposedly superior East -- it's also fair to ask if the NCAA would dare leave Alabama out of the tournament should it finish with the SEC's best regular-season mark.
Said Jones: "They're the best team in the league right now."
Added Vols guard Skylar McBee: "They make a lot of hustle plays, get to a lot of 50-50 balls."
Once upon a time those characteristics were mostly for Tennessee, especially in the earliest days of Pearl's regime. If they become the accepted calling card of Bama, we might be looking at the SEC's next great program.
But for the rest of this season, the Vols still appear to have the edge down the stretch, especially with Pearl back on the sideline and Hopson apparently soon to return to the court, probably against Kentucky.
Referencing Pearl's passion for beating UK, McBee said, "He makes it real obvious how big this rivalry is. I think it will be good for us having him back."
In his final postgame news conference, Jones noted, "As we move forward, we've got a lot of pieces to build on and we still control our own destiny. We have three losses. Florida has two [heading into Saturday night's game against UK]. And we still have the opportunity to go down to Gainesville and play them next Saturday."
It might be the first time in history that a UT coach overlooked Kentucky in favor of Florida. Then again, Jones is no longer the head coach. The man in the neon orange blazer is, which means the Vols' real SEC season has yet to begin.