Basically, the Vols were the hoops epitome of the old saying: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog."
Things have changed radically the past two seasons, however. Pearl now starts a 6-foot-3 point guard and four guys who stand 6-foot-6 or better. So, Tennessee has gone from being the small dog to the big dog in the fight most nights.
Because the Vols are no longer the smaller, quicker team, they often struggle to force the blistering pace they prefer. After averaging 104 points per outing in the first three games of 2009-10, Tennessee has averaged just 73.25 points in the past four games.
"When the opponents are smaller and quicker, it's very difficult to speed up the tempo," Pearl said. "You can get really impatient. If you try to blow these teams out, you can hurt yourself, instead of being solid and being patient. When you go against bigger, slower opponents that you want to speed up, I think you can."
Tennessee hasn't faced any "bigger, slower opponents" lately. The two most recent foes, College of Charleston and East Tennessee State, were significantly smaller than the Vols. Each team tried to neutralize UT's superior size by slowing the pace and limiting the possessions.
Acknowledging that his team's tempo "has not been as up as I'd like it," Pearl added: "I think that's been a function of Charleston and East Tennessee State being smaller. They have kept the pace down.
"One good thing is that we've been able to win games playing slower, as well as playing faster. Pace hasn't been a factor in us being able to win games."
In general, that has been the case. Tennessee beat DePaul 57-53 playing at a snail's pace. It beat College of Charleston 86-69 playing slower than it prefers. It beat ETSU 78-66 at a relatively modest pace. But the Vols also lost to Purdue 73-72 in a game whose tempo was somewhat deliberate.
Basically, each game Tennessee plays features the Vols attempting to set a fast pace and the opponent attempting to establish a slower tempo.
"There's two ways you can control tempo: One is on offense, one is on defense," Pearl said, adding that defensively, "you can make the game go faster or you can make the game go slower with certain kinds of fullcourt pressure, 2-2-1, zone defense packed in, man defense packed in.
"Offensively, you can only slow it down. You can't pick the tempo of a game up offensively. You can go faster but it doesn't make the opponent go faster. It's a lot easier to slow the game down than to speed it up."
When opponents established a deliberate tempo last season, Tennessee routinely reacted by pushing the pace so hard that it became reckless and mistake-prone. This season the Vols are doing a much better job adapting to a slower pace. As a result, they committed a season-low six turnovers vs. ETSU last time out. Pearl is understandably pleased, noting:
"Would we like to speed tempo up more? The answer is we'd like to speed tempo up more but at what cost?"
Not at the cost of winning, for sure.