The Vols still give up too many easy shots and they still give up too many offensive rebounds. They still struggle to contain athletic power forwards and lightning-quick guards. Overall, though, Tennessee made significant strides from Game 1 against East Tennessee State to Game 9 against Lipscomb. That's encouraging.
"Some teams don't get better, and I've been saying that a lot," Pearl said recently. "That's what I want them to focus on: Are we better than we were against Texas? I'm not sure we were better against Oklahoma State."
Texas, of course, was Tennessee's signature win. The Vols put it all together Dec. 17 at Austin and shocked the sixth-ranked Longhorns 95-78. Conversely, Oklahoma State was Tennessee's low point to date. Five days after beating Texas, the Vols fell 89-73 against the Cowboys.
Since the OSU loss, however, Tennessee has bounced back to thrash Alabama A&M 93-68 and hold off Lipscomb 69-58. Thus, the Vols carry an 8-1 record into Wednesday night's game with South Alabama.
Is Tennessee overconfident? Apparently not. The players routinely echo their coach's comments about the need for continued improvement.
"We're pretty good but we can do better," sophomore guard JaJuan Smith said. "We're still chasing our identity right now."
Senior forward Stanley Asumnu offers similar thoughts.
"We're getting better but we can't be satisfied," he said. "We've got to continue to work hard each day in practice and get better. We have to do the things Coach Pearl wants us to do.
"We're paying good attention to the scouting reports. So far we're doing a good job but we can't be satisfied. We've got to continue getting better."
One reason the Vols have made steady progress through the first nine games is that they have embraced the up-tempo offense and full-court defense utilized by the new coaching regime. Their enthusiasm is obvious.
"We're enjoying our time out there," Asumnu said. "Coach Pearl is letting us be free to make plays."
Making plays is fun. Making progress is vital.