One week ago, with fans grumbling that his Vols had played their way out of the NCAA Tournament via lopsided losses at Ole Miss (81-65) and Kentucky (77-58), Pearl insisted that UT needed only to beat Mississippi State to get back on track for an invitation to The Dance.
This week, with fans gushing that Tennessee has locked up a bid by beating Mississippi State (81-76) and Florida (79-75), Pearl is again swimming against the tide. One week after being the Voice of Optimism, he suddenly has become the Voice of Pessimism.
“I don't think you take anything for granted,” he said when asked if UT is “in” during his Monday news conference.
Tennessee has an 18-10 overall record and a 9-5 SEC record. The Vols have a No. 25 in RPI and a No. 1 strength-of-schedule rating. They have a high-profile coach and an All-America player (Tyler Smith). They have a pretty good resume' ... but pretty good may not be good enough.
“Because of the landscape of college basketball right now,” Pearl said, “particularly at the high-major level, where there are so many teams on the bubble in the high-major conferences.”
A win Thursday night at South Carolina would just about clinch the SEC East title and an NCAA Tournament bid. Even if the Vols lose Thursday, a win Sunday afternoon against Alabama could earn a share of the East title and an invitation to The Dance. If the Vols lose both Thursday and Sunday, however, they'll be right back on the NCAA bubble. Pearl isn't hesitant to tell them as much.
“Our team's responded with their backs against the wall on a number of occasions,” he said, “so I think I'm going to keep their backs right up against it ... keep OUR backs up against it.”
You wonder, though: Could telling the players they have not yet locked up an NCAA Tournament bid be a distraction?
“I just think it's consistent with everything I've always done ... tell the truth, be honest, keep it real,” Pearl replied. “We need to win some games to win the SEC championship. Is that a news flash? Is that something I should keep from the players because it might put pressure on them?”
Historically, Pearl's teams have played some of their best basketball when the pressure was greatest.
“When we went to Arkansas a couple of years ago we hadn't had a road win, and that was late February,” he recalled. “If we didn't get a road win pretty soon, we were going to be a bubble (team) or off. But we got that road win, and I think went on to win a bunch more, got ourselves a fifth seed. That was just a good enough seed to advance to the Sweet 16.
“Regardless of what kind of pressure it puts (on them), I think you've got to let the players know what you think, where we're at.”
And, where the Vols are at, he believes, is not where they want to be.
As Pearl put it: “We've got more work to do to get in.”