KNOXVILLE -- Bruce Pearl doesn't question whether his Tennessee men's basketball team is potentially better than last season's Volunteers.

Tennessee returns its top seven scorers and rebounders from a 21-win team. The Vols will probably start four seniors, a rare number for top programs in the current era. They added three talented newcomers to an already solid rotation, and one of them -- freshman guard Skylar McBee -- has shown flashes of being the long-range sniper they desperately lacked last season.

So it's no stretch to think UT could be better, Pearl said. But the rest of the Southeastern Conference looks tougher, too, he added.

"I think we're ready," Pearl said Monday afternoon. "I think we've improved. I think we're a little better at every position, and so therefore I think that should translate into being a little better at this time than we were a year ago."

Last season wasn't bad by previous standards set for this program. But those standards rose sharply when Pearl arrived, and last season's first-round NCAA tournament loss caused moans and groans.

But the Vols return nearly their entire nucleus, and some national observers have suggested that Pearl has every ingredient needed for a Final Four run.

That's fine with the coach and his players.

"We're setting the bar as high as you can set it," Pearl said. "We want to be a better team than we were a year ago. We want to try to be the best team that Tennessee's ever fielded. Why not put those goals out there? This team's capable of it. But we recognize the league. We recognize that there's at least a couple of teams picked ahead of us, and maybe we're talking about seven or eight teams good enough to be in the NCAA tournament.

"It has to play itself out, but because the league is going to set the bar so high ... we will rise to that. The question is, 'How far will we go? How soon will we be good?'"

The team's four seniors -- All-America forward Tyler Smith, big man Wayne Chism, wing J.P. Prince and point guard Bobby Maze -- don't have much time to wait. They want to see a fast start in Friday night's season opener against Austin Peay, and they want that to catapult the Vols into a championship season.

"I didn't come back for my senior year for us to just be good or pretty good," said Smith, who nearly bolted for the NBA after the past two seasons. "I came back to win championships. No excuses. We've got the team. We've got what it takes. We just need to do it.

"We didn't have the season we wanted last year. We're not the old Tennessee. That wasn't good enough. And this year, for us seniors, this is it, man. This is our last chance to win the whole thing."

Added Prince: "We left so many close wins out there last year that it makes you sick. That can't happen again, and it won't."

Pearl and his players have conditioned and practiced harder in hopes of returning to the fast-paced, full-court style that brought the program initial success. The plan is to physically wear down opponents before poaching big plays down the stretch.

"We've probably practiced harder and more intensely than we have the last year or two, knowing that the seniors could handle it, and knowing that we needed to pick up the physicality of our play," Pearl said. "We needed to build on what we learned a year ago."

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