Lexington's Rupp Arena isn't the biggest basketball facility in America but it might pose the most daunting challenge. No arena has more zealous and animated fans than Kentucky's. No arena has more impact on the officials, the opposing players and the game itself. That's why Pearl coaches differently in Rupp than he does in other arenas.
"I think you do have to coach somewhat differently at places like that," the Vol coach said. "You have to be mindful of where you are, what the environment is, what your game plan needs to be. I think there's a difference ... absolutely."
Like most coaches, Pearl likes to save his timeouts. Still, when Kentucky's offense gets rolling and the Rupp crowd gets animated, sometimes the only deterrent is a quick timeout to interrupt the onslaught.
"Maybe," Pearl said. "At the same time, if depth is our factor, I don't want to call all of my timeouts and let those (UK) guys rest.... Our guys know what they're supposed to do when the opponent makes a run and the crowd gets elevated. We drill it, we teach it, and most of the time they do it."
Even so, Pearl is more inclined to call early timeouts at Rupp Arena, having learned from experience that a loud crowd can help turn a 10-point deficit into a 20-point deficit in the blink of an eye. Sometimes a game is over before 10 minutes have elapsed.
"Kentucky plays well early in games," Pearl noted, "so we're going to have to hang in there early."
That's easier said than done. Visiting players tend to be affected by Rupp Arena, thanks to an aura that is unlike any other venue.
"You walk in there, and it's very special," Pearl said. "There's an atmosphere that's very festive."
And somewhat intimidating. Kentucky has won 29 consecutive games at Rupp - all 19 games in 2009-10 and the first 10 of 2010-11. The Big Blue's last home setback came at the hands of Georgia in March of 2009.
Oddly enough, Pearl won on his first visit to Rupp Arena, beating Tubby Smith's Wildcats 75-67 in 2006. Since then, however, Pearl is 0-4 there - losing to Smith's Cats 76-57 in '07, to Billy Gillispie's Cats 72-66 in '08 and 77-58 in '09 and to John Calipari's Cats 73-62 in 2010.
"I've been there five times," Pearl said. "We've played well three times - our first year, last year, and the time we went up there without Chris (Lofton) I thought we played awfully well."
That would be the 2007 game. Even with All-American Lofton sidelined by a sprained ankle, Tennessee led by a point at halftime only to see the Big Blue pull away down the stretch and win by 19.
Historically, Pearl says the Wildcats tend to dominate in two areas at Rupp Arena - rebounding and running.
"Kentucky always took advantage of us in transition," the Vol coach said. "Alabama (which beat Tennessee 65-60 last Saturday) is a good fast-breaking team but Kentucky's special. We're going to have to make sure we get back on defense; otherwise, Kentucky will run really hard at us."
This year's youthful Wildcats seem to hit warp speed at Rupp, clearly feeding off of the mind-boggling energy level of their home fans. A perfect illustration: They are 1-4 in SEC road games but 3-0 in SEC home games, with an average victory margin of 22.7 points.
"Not many people are going to beat Kentucky at Kentucky," Pearl said. "Nobody's beaten 'em yet."
Tennessee's turn to try arrives at 9 o'clock tonight.