Big Orange fans were understandably ecstatic. "If the Vols are this good in December," they reasoned, "how good will they be in January?"
Not all that great, it turns out. Tennessee has lost seven of its last 12 games. Even Pearl admits that he expected more progress than this squad has shown to date.
"It's not typical," the head man said. "We had to be pretty good early because of the schedule, and we were. Have we gotten consistently better since the middle of December? Obviously, we haven't."
That's not to say the Vols haven't shown improvement in a few phases of play or in a few halves of basketball. Their transition offense looked great in a 104-84 drubbing of Memphis on Jan. 5 and their defense was spectacular in a 59-57 win at Georgia on Jan. 18.
All things considered, however, the Big Orange has not made the kind of steady improvement that characterizes quality teams.
"There have been times when we really played well," Pearl noted. "To come back from 17 down against Vanderbilt, to beat Georgia (on the road) and to outplay Connecticut for a half, we put four really good halves together that would stand up against anybody in college basketball.
"At the same time, some of the things - second-half defense, our guards not rebounding down, unforced turnovers, inconsistent play - have been just enough to prevent us from getting that edge that we need to get it rolling and put something together."
Statistics suggest that Tennessee has not improved significantly since the upset of Pittsburgh. If anything, the numbers suggest the Vols have gotten worse.
- Tennessee averaged 78.7 points in Games 1-7 but only 69.8 in Games 8-19.
- Tennessee allowed opponents to average just 66.6 points in Games 1-7 but 70.6 in Games 8-19.
- Tennessee outscored the opposition by an average of 12.1 points in Games 1-7 but was outscored by an average of 0.8 points in Games 8-19.
- Tennessee shot 46.6 percent from the field in Games 1-7 but just 42.2 percent in Games 8-19.
- Tennessee shot 35.5 percent from 3 in Games 1-7 but just 30.1 percent in Games 8-19.
- Tennessee allowed opponents to shoot just 36.8 percent from the field in Games 1-7 but 45.1 percent in Games 8-19.
- Tennessee allowed opponents to shoot a mere 29.7 percent from 3-point range in Games 1-7 but 39.2 percent in Games 8-19.
Some will argue that Tennessee played weaker opponents in Games 1-7 than in Games 8-19 but that is debatable. The first seven foes included two top-10 teams (Villanova and Pitt) and two teams that likely will qualify for the NCAA Tournament (Virginia Commonwealth and Belmont).The next 12 foes included just one top-10 team (UConn), one top-25 team (Memphis) and four likely NCAA Tournament teams (Belmont in a rematch, Florida, Vanderbilt and Georgia).
Even if the opposition got better from mid-December to now, it appears that the Vols did not. The lack of progress has Pearl a bit annoyed, as evidenced by this comment:
"Nineteen ball games is enough to be able to understand how to play together, understand what our roles are and understand what we need from everybody."