"If we play like that tomorrow, we won't advance," he said moments after a lackluster 59-49 first-round defeat of LSU on Thursday. "We'll get beat. We have to play better to beat Ole Miss."
The Rebels posted a mere 9-7 SEC record this season but they were among the league's hottest teams down the stretch. They closed with a four-game win streak that featured victories vs. Auburn, at Alabama, vs. LSU and at Arkansas.
"Ole Miss probably comes into the tournament playing as well as anybody," Pearl said. "After losing to Vanderbilt and Florida, they've won every game coming down the stretch."
A bona-fide NCAA Tournament "bubble team," the Rebels bring a 21-9 overall record into today's 2:15 Central tipoff against Tennessee. That means they'll be hungry and determined.
"They're playing for their Tournament lives," Pearl said. "They're supposedly a team that is one quality win away from getting in. Given our ranking (No. 15) and our RPI - not the way we played tonight - we would be a quality win."
Ole Miss gave Tennessee fits in the regular-season meeting at Knoxville before losing 71-69 in overtime. Guards Chris Warren (19 points, 3 steals) and Terrico White (17 points, 3 assists) proved especially troublesome in that Jan. 16 meeting.
"They've got great guards," Pearl said. "Warren and Terrico are great players. We beat them at home in overtime, and it was all we could do. I would say that our win against Ole Miss at home is right there with any of our wins, including Kentucky and Kansas."
That's hyperbole, of course, because Kansas was ranked No. 1 when the Vols beat the Jayhawks and Kentucky was No. 2 when the Vols beat the Wildcats. Still, the Rebels played the Vols closer in Knoxville than either the Jayhawks (76-68 losers) or the Cats (74-65 losers) did.
Making Ole Miss a tougher test is the fact Tennessee will be playing its second game in 24 hours, whereas the Rebels will be playing for the first time in a week. Moreover, the Rebels have had ample time to prepare for the Vols. Conversely, the Vols were too busy getting ready for LSU to spend much time preparing for the Rebels.
"I prepared my basketball team for LSU; I promise you we did," Pearl said. "It may not have looked like it, but we did.
"I did look at Ole Miss (tapes) on Sunday and Monday morning just because I had to because I've got to be ready for them."
Whether the Vols are ready or not remains to be seen. The answer will come shortly after 2:15 Central today.