Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl enters perhaps the most critical stretch of his coaching career tonight when his Big Orange Volunteers go to Lexington to face their arch-rival, the Kentucky Wildcats.
Tennessee has beaten Kentucky far more than any other Southeastern Conference team, and has also won more games in Lexington than any other team.
Pearl is fresh off his suspension by SEC commissioner Mike Slive and gets to not only coach UT against UK in Lexington tonight on ESPN nationally, but also to end the regular season in Knoxville against them on CBS in another nationally televised contest.
On top of that, the Vols' next game after this one is Saturday evening in Gainesville against the league-leading Florida Gators and a former Kentucky assistant coach.
Pearl is at his best in the underdog role, as his motivational skills are unrivaled. He has already proven he can out-coach both John Calipari and Billy Donovan on the road. He will have to summon all of his prowess to win these next two games.
Of the final eight games remaining in Tennessee's season, they will most likely be favored in all of them except for these first two. Winning them would not only propel them to the top of their conference and the No. 1 seed in the tournament that goes with it, but would assure their place in the NCAA Tournament, also with a very high seed.
Moreover, the outcome of these games could very well determine Bruce Pearl's future at Tennessee or even his entire future as a college basketball coach. The UT administration would be hard-pressed to fire a coach who won the SEC, even with possible NCAA sanctions and suspensions that might include probation and loss of scholarships looming.
On the other hand, should Pearl fail to coach his team to at least one win among these next two contests, his team will fade in the conference race, will run the risk of not making the NCAA tourney for the first time in his career at Tennessee and would make it much easier for his school to fire him if the continuing investigation of his program results in a suspension from the governing body.
The stakes have never been higher for Pearl, and he could very well have his livelihood on the line in these two games, as they will determine the outcome of his sixth season on The Hill.
Pearl is an emotional, fiery personality. He is a tireless promoter of his program, much like legendary coach Ray Mears, the winningest coach the Big Orange has ever had, was when he built the program to national prominence in the 1960s and 1970s.
Pearl will be wearing the Big Orange Blazer in honor of Coach Mears when his team takes the court tonight. He will be prowling the sidelines again in a profile that is much like Mears was in his prime.
Having lost games that the Vols should've won in December against inferior teams and lost the only game he coached in January at Connecticut, Pearl has two more big chances this week to regain his November form in February. Tennessee is still one of only two teams in America that has beaten fourth-ranked Pittsburgh.
With Kentucky and Florida being the only top-20 teams that Tennessee will face until tournament time, the Vols must make the most of this week's schedule in order to maintain their position in the top 20 of the RPI ratings.
They have played one of the top schedules in the country, still ranking third in strength of schedule nationally.
Look for the Vols to welcome their head coach and their star forward, Scotty Hopson, who has been sidelined with a severe ankle sprain from practice, with intensity. That sense of urgency will be needed, as it will be tested in two of the toughest places to play in college basketball.
Both Kentucky and Florida have won national championships. Tennessee made its first-ever trip to the Elite Eight last season.
The Vols already lost an overtime game to the Gators in Knoxville under interim coach Tony Jones, standing in for Pearl during his suspension. They need to avoid being swept by them and at least have a chance for a split, if not a sweep, of Kentucky, if they expect to make hay in the NCAA this year.