Rust replaces momentum

Fresh from an upset of No. 6 Villanova and a 30-point thrashing of Middle Tennessee, Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Vols had a nice head of steam going last week. As a result, they were a little disappointed when final exams halted their momentum by imposing a 10-day layoff.

Senior John Fields probably summed it up best:

"It's kind of tough every finals week because the team is in a good rhythm and I feel we should keep playing every two or three days. But I think Coach Pearl will do a good job of keeping us sharp and have us ready for Pitt."

Scheduling around final exams is vitally important, of course. Players need to spend extra time cramming for tests. At least, most of them do. Fields was a rare exception. As a graduate student who transferred in from UNC Wilmington, he took just one course this semester - sports law.

His Tennessee teammates were faced with much tougher academic challenges, of course. So, with the Vols taking on third-ranked Pitt Saturday in the Big East/SEC Challenge at Pittsburgh, you have to wonder: How will they react after a 10-day layoff from competition which saw them spend significantly more time studying than practicing?

That's a difficult question to answer, based on historical precedent. Pearl's 2005 Vols drilled a talented Texas team in their first post-finals outing but his 2008 Vols were trounced by Temple in their first post-finals outing.

Basically, Tennessee's post-final exam performances under Pearl have run the gamut - a few excellent outings, a few lousy outings and several that fell somewhere in between.

Here's a recap:

2005: After a 5-0 start and a 10-day layoff for finals, Tennessee stunned No. 6 Texas 95-78, then lost to unranked Oklahoma State 89-73.

2006: After a 7-2 start and a nine-day layoff for finals, Tennessee beat unranked Western Kentucky 93-79 and edged No. 15 Oklahoma State 79-77.

2007: After an 8-1 start and a 10-day layoff for finals, Tennessee beat unranked Western Kentucky 88-82 and unranked UNC Asheville 86-73.

2008: After a 6-1 start and a nine-day layoff for finals, Tennessee lost at unranked Temple 88-72, then beat No. 24 Marquette 80-68.

2009: After a 6-1 start and an eight-day layoff for finals, Tennessee beat unranked Middle Tennessee 75-54 and unranked Wyoming 77-58.

To try and keep his 2010-11 team game-ready, Pearl essentially held an intra-squad game earlier this week.

"We scrimmaged," he said. "We worked on us. We played a game. I think we've gotten better this week. We have enough depth to practice against ourselves to make progress and learn."

Naturally, Pearl is hopeful this year's layoff will not adversely affect his team Saturday against Pitt.

"I think we'll be fine," he said. "If we're a little rusty because of the layoff, we'll be a little rusty, but I don't see it being a factor in the outcome."

Maybe not. Still, it would've been nice to face the powerful Panthers with Tennessee riding that momentum it had 10 days earlier.

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