The 2009-10 Vols' impressive record is getting them a lot of respect from poll voters but it is not getting them a lot of respect in Big Orange Country. Playing well enough to win is no longer sufficient. They must play impressively and win big in order to satisfy a media corps and fan base whose expectations clearly are at an all-time high.
"It's definitely frustrating," sophomore wing Cameron Tatum said this week, "but it all comes back to us. How are we going to take that frustration? Are we going to come out and play lackadaisical or are we going to come out and play with energy, try to send a message to the rest of the world that we are better than our ranking shows?
"It all comes down to what we decide to do with that frustration."
Head coach Bruce Pearl is showing his frustration a little more than usual these days. He exhibited some real angst when questioned about a negative statistic in Tuesday night's 77-58 defeat of an unranked but solid Wyoming team.
"I don't get that," Pearl said. "I've been on this team really hard. You guys (reporters) have been accountable (writing that) we haven't been beating people by enough. But this was a good win against a good team."
Pearl is no stranger to great expectations, of course. This is the same guy who one day earlier expressed his own dissatisfaction with the team's recent inconsistency.
"You have to understand where I set the bar," he said. "I set the bar at a different level. I set the bar to be a championship team, not to be a good team. I'm going to be very open and honest about when we practice good that we practice good. And when we don't, I'm not going to shy away from it."
The Vols have outscored their first nine opponents by an average of 24 points per game, yet there is a widespread perception that the team is not playing anywhere near its potential. Even All-America forward Tyler Smith is not immune. He's averaging just 12.2 points per game - five off last year's 17.2 pace - but he's leading the team in assists and creating loads of scoring opportunities for his fellow Vols.
"The guys around me are making shots," he said. "Give credit to my teammates. I'm just not looking for my shot as much as I used to. When big games come I might have to do it differently. But my teammates are making shots, and until it changes, I'm going to keep on doing that."
Unselfishness is a good thing, of course. Still, you wonder if passing up good shots is becoming a habit that may be difficult to break.
"Sometimes it is," Smith conceded. "But I'm just taking what the defense gives me. If they pressure up and I know I can blow by my man that's something I'll continue to do. "