"The problem is because our roster is so thin I can't provide them with enough competition during practice to even become a situation where they're going to be challenged," said Pearl, who spent nine years as the coach of the Screaming Eagles during the 1990s. "This is the first time all preseason that my players are even going to get a challenge, and that's a problem."
Finding some competition for junior center Major Wingate has been an even bigger problem. With senior forward Andre Patterson suspended indefinitely after an altercation with former football player Daniel Brooks last month, true freshmen Damion Harris and Ryan Childress are the only other pure post players Pearl has available.
The Vols are so undersized that 6-3 junior Dane Bradshaw, Tennessee's backup point guard last year, will start in the post against USI. Luckily for the Volunteers, the Screaming Eagles don't start a player taller than 6-6.
"I'm really just glad we're playing another opponent, and I'm really glad we're going to get some things exposed," said Pearl, who won a Division-II National Championship at USI in 1995. "I'm really glad we're going to be challenged, because that's the only way you're going to get better."
Regardless of who the Volunteers are playing, the bigger story is the debut of Pearl, who is coaching his first game at a big-time program after spending the last four seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He led the Panthers to a Sweet 16 appearance a year ago.
"This style fits my game pretty well," said senior point guard C.J. Watson, who was recently named as a preseason All-SEC selection. "It's just a matter of how quickly we adapt.
"We need to make sure we do what Coach Pearl needs us to do."
The formula has worked so far. Pearl's up-tempo, run-the-floor brand of basketball has netted him an average of 24 wins a season over his 13-year career, and he became the second-fastest coach ever to reach 300 wins last season.
"We want to show everybody the new Vols," said Watson, who will be expected to carry a heavy portion of the load in his final season. "I think we have a lot of potential. We don't have as much talent as what we usually have, so I think we have a lot to prove.
"I think everybody is underestimating us, and that makes us more competitive."
Maybe so, but there will undoubtedly be a learning curve for the micro-Vols, who are coming off the their worst season in nine years. To make matters worse, Tennessee graduated two of the team's top four scorers.
"I want people to be excited about the way we're going to play, but also to have some patience," said Pearl. "Asking these guys to learn an entirely new system in two-and-a-half weeks is very difficult."