With a 14-7 overall record and a 2-4 SEC mark, the Vols' chances of getting a bid to "The Dance" have plummeted since a sizzling 12-2 start. Tennessee has won just two games in January, home-floor squeakers against SEC also-rans Mississippi State (92-84) and South Carolina (64-61). The last two games were double-digit losses at Ole Miss 83-69 and at Kentucky (76-57).
Pearl knows the Vols must rally if they are to earn an NCAA bid, and he is candid about this with his players. Still, he disputes the idea that their backs are against the wall.
"We just keep it real," he said. "I don't think our backs are to the wall but if we want to talk about the NCAA Tournament – and we need to start talking about it – we have to win enough games in this league to take advantage of what we did in the non-conference (portion of the schedule)."
Tennessee's chances of making a late-season rally should improve dramatically if All-America guard Chris Lofton recovers fully from the ankle injury that sidelined him the past two games. Pearl says the Vols can't pin their hopes on that possibility, however.
"Regardless of whether Chris is healthy or not healthy, or what percentage he's going to be if he does play, we've got to start winning some games," the coach said.
Despite five losses in the past six outings, Pearl believes his team's confidence has not been shaken.
"I don't think it has," he said. "It's certainly going to be challenged. We've got 10 games left in the regular season, and we've got work to do in those 10 games. We play some of the best teams in the SEC."
Georgia qualifies as one of the SEC's best, having won five of its last six. The Dawgs beat a South Carolina team by 24 (80-56) that Tennessee edged by three. They beat Vanderbilt 87-73 and upset Arkansas in Fayetteville 67-64. Last week they whipped Kentucky 78-69 and LSU 57-54, boosting their overall record to 13-6 and their league mark to 5-2. Clearly, Georgia is not the kind of team you'd choose to face in a must-win situation.
"Second to Florida, Georgia's probably playing better than anybody else in the conference," Pearl noted. "Yet that's what kind of importance this game has because we've got to get it started here at some point."