KNOXVILLE - Mississippi State briefly took Bruce Pearl's mind to a better time.

The Tennessee men's basketball coach broke down Bulldogs' video before tonight's pivotal Southeastern Conference game in Thompson-Boling Arena, and he saw several glimpses of past Volunteers.

Mississippi State surrounds super center Jarvis Varnado with four guards, creating one of the nation's most prolific perimeter shooting and shot-blocking teams - the SEC leader in both categories.

That statistical anomaly makes for difficult matchups, much like Pearl's first three UT teams but worlds apart from the current Vols.

"Watching Mississippi State now is like watching us a year ago," Pearl said. "They run so many of the things that we ran a year ago, and they do it so well. They create in transition, and they shoot and make more 3 balls than anybody. They spread you out, and they're quicker (than you) at every single position.

"It's like I'm in a situation trying to prepare against us a year ago."

But Pearl never has had a defensive presence like Varnado in the paint.

Varnado - a long-armed, high-rising, 6-foot-9 senior from Brownsville, Tenn. - leads NCAA Division I with 134 blocks this season. Second-place Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut's 7-3 center, is 16 off the pace.

"(Varnado) is sending everything to the out-of-bounds line," said UT junior forward Wayne Chism, a fellow West Tennessean who has known Varnado for years. "He became a different player from high school and AAU, so he became a better player."

Varnardo won't be Chism's sole responsibility tonight, though. When the Vols' big man shifts to power forward, he'll have to handle 6-7 wing Raven Johnson - a 43.1 percent 3-point shooter.

It's not difficult to see the potential problems in that scenario, especially considering Chism's admission of unsatisfactory focus and intensity at Kentucky.

"I've got to really stay focused because ... I forget that I'm at the 4 sometimes, thinking I'm at the 5," Chism said. "It's going to be a heck of a lot different this game, and I've really got to stay focused and remember what position I'm at."

The Vols could have even more problems on the offensive end, if they struggle again from the perimeter.

When Varnado avoids foul trouble, he makes scoring around the rim a trick proposition.

"He not only blocks it; he sends them out on the fastbreak," Pearl said. "And, of course, since they take a lot of long shots, they're at an advantage in rebounding, because they chase them down ... just like we did when we shot so many 3 balls."

Plenty is at stake tonight. Consecutive double-digit losses at Ole Miss and Kentucky have left UT (16-10, 7-5) closer to the NCAA tournament bubble, and Mississippi State (17-10, 7-5) needs a big road victory to boost a postseason resume lacking pre-conference quality.

NCAA bids will be at a premium in an allegedly down season for the SEC, according to most national analysts, and the Vols and Bulldogs share the league's fifth-best mark.

"We've got to win," UT junior forward Tyler Smith said. "We put pressure on ourselves by not winning on Saturday, but I don't think we're feeling it yet, as far as tightening up. We've still got to play our game and try to come out of here with four wins.

"It's hard, but you can't look back at the past. You've just got to keep on going with what we've got now."

Any winning streak must start by ending the current skid. To do that, the Vols need to defend the perimeter and at least occasionally score over Mount Varnado.

"It's going to be a tough matchup," said UT freshman guard Scotty Hopson, a McDonald's All-American who initially committed to Mississippi State. "I think our guys are going to have to be committed to guarding their shooters, and we're going have to stop Varnado down low, of course. We need to take the best shots we can, so he won't be able to (alter) our tough 2s.

"We're going to still pound the ball inside. That's our game."