"We're obviously still searching for combinations and finding out ways we can put our best players on the floor," said Pearl, who sports a 90-31 mark in four Tennessee seasons. "We are a team that I knew had to get a lot better throughout the season, especially given our (tough) schedule, and we've had some mixed results."
Pearl, whose Volunteers visit Fayetteville on Wednesday, may have found his ultimate lineup during this past Saturday's victory over Florida, though.
Preaseason Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Tyler Smith started again, making the junior forward the only Volunteer to begin every contest this season. Junior forward Wayne Chism started his 17th game, freshman guard Scotty Hopson started his 16th and junior guard J.P. Prince started his ninth straight.
One change was glaring, however. Junior Bobby Maze started UT's first 18 games, but junior Josh Tabb opened up the Volunteers' 79-63 victory at point guard for the second straight contest. Hard to argue with these results: Five assists and one turnover for Tabb and 11 points, four assists and no turnovers for Maze.
Tennessee's offense ran smoother. Its defense upped the intensity. Its confidence soared.
"Certainly Florida was a pivotal win for our team. Not just the win, but the way we played," Pearl said. "It was really an opportunity for us to take a huge step after having lost to Gonzaga, Memphis, LSU and Kentucky. We lost four home games there in that stretch, and the most we'd lost (before that) was two in three years.
"So we were reeling a little bit."
If anything, those struggles helped the Volunteers mature. They learned valuable lessons in each of their seven losses, and likely disproved the potential effectiveness of certain starting lineups in the process.
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey expressed admiration for Pearl's willingness to challenge the Volunteers with a stiff schedule.
"It certainly has not hurt them in terms of gaining experience and playing in very difficult environments," Pelphrey said. "Playing at Kansas, at Temple (and in the Old Spice Classic) probably prepares you to come to a place like Bud Walton (Arena)."
Pelphrey mentioned numerous tests Tennessee (13-7, 4-2 SEC) posed for the Razorbacks (13-6, 1-5). He talked about the Volunteers' strength inside with Smith and Chism. He raved about UT's ability to force mistakes with its defense.
He also described the difficulty of trying to handle Tennessee's lanky guards. In the backcourt against Florida, the Volunteers started Tabb, who stands 6-foot-4, and 6-7 guards Hopson and Prince. Arkansas doesn't start even one guard as tall as Tabb with freshmen Courtney Fortson (5-11) and Rotnei Clarke (6-0) and junior Stefan Welsh (6-3).
"They don't look like our guys," Pelphrey said. "They are long, athletic and talented."
Clarke said he hoped the Hogs' past dealings with bigger guards prepared them adequately for the Volunteers, which sit a half-game out of first place in the SEC Eastern Division.
"I think we've dealt with that a little bit," Clarke said. "LSU's guards are athletic and pretty long. (Facing Tennessee's) is definitely tough, though. They're a different animal. They're really athletic, really long and it's tough offensively to get things going when they have their hands extended that long in the passing lane."
Especially now that the Volunteers are settling into their specific roles.
Tennessee at Arkansas
When: 7:05 p.m.
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: KHOG (Cox channel 7, Cox HD channel 707)
Radio: KEZA-FM 107.9, KKEG-FM 92.1, KUOA-AM 1290, FM 105.3
Records: Tennessee Volunteers, 13-7, 4-2 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas Razorbacks, 13-6, 1-5
Coaches: Tennessee, Bruce Pearl (4th season); Arkansas, John Pelphrey (2nd season)
Series: Tennessee leads 13-12
Last Meeting: Arkansas beat Tennessee 92-91 on March 15, 2008, in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament in Atlanta