Except for sophomore wing Scotty Hopson, the Big Orange played poorly at both Tuscaloosa and Athens. Unless several guys elevate their play considerably and immediately, the Vols could go 0-2 at home this week against SEC East foes Vanderbilt (Wednesday) and Florida (Sunday) - essentially eliminating themselves from the division title chase.
After acknowledging that "You'd normally be OK" with a split of the Alabama/Georgia road trip, Pearl added, "but it's more about the quality of play. The Georgia game was troubling because they really dominated us."
He got that right. The homestanding Bulldogs basically won the game in the opening 20 minutes, ramming home six dunks en route to 65.2-percent shooting in the first half. They also outrebounded UT 18-8 during that stretch en route to a 42-27 halftime lead. The margin swelled to 24 points before closing at 15 points (78-63).
"They did get off to a good start," Pearl said of the Bulldogs. "That's four or five games in a row now where (opposing) teams have gotten off to good starts."
The coach knew his team had problems long before the loss at Georgia. The Vols needed some luck to nip visiting Ole Miss 71-69 in overtime on Jan. 16 and needed a heroic finish by Wayne Chism (11 points in the final 7 minutes) to win 63-56 at Alabama on Jan. 19. That's why Pearl altered his lineup prior to the Athens visit.
"I did change the starting lineup," he noted. "I put Kenny Hall in there, primarily for defensive purposes."
The Vol coach hoped Hall's aggressive nature would help Tennessee start a little quicker than it had in its previous three games. The Vols trailed Auburn 22-34 early, trailed Ole Miss 6-18 early and trailed Alabama 1-7 early.
"We had started poorly against Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama," Pearl noted. "It didn't matter that we were winning. I'm more concerned about the quality of play."
The lineup change didn't help, however, as Tennessee fell behind 12-25 early in Athens and never overcame its latest slow start.
"It didn't necessarily make any difference," Pearl conceded, "so I don't necessarily feel great about splitting because of the way we're playing."
Chism, UT's 6-9, 245-pound senior post, may not be 100 percent for the Vanderbilt game after hyperextending a knee against Georgia. He came back and played later in the game but was ineffective.
"We're calling it a sprain," Pearl said. "He's been living with trainer Chad Newman all day yesterday and all today - around class. He won't practice today but we're going to see him tomorrow and see how he feels."
On a hopeful note, the coach added that Chism seems to be "doing very well."