The 'grind' continues

Tennessee's basketball players learn a lot on the practice floor each day. They learn more on the game floor twice each week. They learn still more on the road.

Vol coach Bruce Pearl is hoping his seventh-ranked Vols (17-2) learned a lot in their first two SEC road games – South Carolina and Kentucky – because they're facing three stern road tests in the next four games ... starting tonight at Alabama (12-8 overall, 1-4 SEC).

Tipoff is set for 9 o'clock EST with television coverage by ESPN. The Vols then visit Mississippi State (14-5, 5-0) Saturday at 7, host Florida (18-3, 5-1) Feb. 5 at 9, then visit LSU (7-12, 0-5) Feb. 9 at 3 p.m.

Tennessee discovered the value of a quick start on the road Jan. 12 at South Carolina, scoring the game's first 11 points in grabbing a lead the Vols never relinquished en route to an 80-56 triumph.

Tennessee discovered the cost of a weak finish on the road Jan. 22 at Kentucky, scoring just two baskets in a 13-minute second-half stretch that saw the Vols go from nine points ahead to eight points behind in a 72-66 loss.

So, what have Tennessee's players learned about life on the road in the SEC after visits to Columbia and Lexington?

"There is nothing like experience," Pearl said. "We learned from victory. We learned from defeat. You just try not to repeat your mistakes."

The Vols made very few mistakes at Columbia, which is why they were able to win handily. Conversely, they made some critical mistakes at Lexington. They allowed Kentucky to dominate the backboards 36-27. They recorded just 6 steals, routinely allowing the Big Blue to break full-court pressure for easy baskets. They put Kentucky on the foul line 28 times. They lost their offensive rhythm in the second half, shooting just 36 percent overall and 21 percent from 3. Worst of all, they let the Wildcats make spurts that got the home crowd back in the game.

After noting that life on the road in the SEC is "a grind," Pearl defended his team's play at Lexington.

"We played hard against Kentucky," he said. "Did we have the edge in intensity? No. But Kentucky didn't play harder than we did. When I talked about the passion – that we didn't quite have that intensity – maybe that was a function of playing our third game in six days. But they didn't play harder than we did."

Tennessee wears down most opponents with its intensity and its depth. Neither had much impact in the loss at Rupp Arena, however.

"We play harder most nights – that's hard to do – because what we do requires it," Pearl said. "You can't press, you can't extend defensively without trying to play at a different level of intensity than your opponent."

The Vol coach used the NFL's Baltimore Ravens to illustrate how a team's performances can vary markedly from week to week.

"I watched the Ravens just about beat the (unbeaten) New England Patriots," he said. "Then two weeks later I watched them get beat by the (previously winless) Miami Dolphins."

After watching the Ravens out-hustle the mighty Patriots only to go through the motions against the hapless Dolphins, Pearl vowed never to allow his team's intensity level to rise and fall so dramatically.

As the coach put it: "I thought, 'There's no way. We're not going to be that (erratic). We're going to give it our best almost every night.'"

Except for a lackluster showing in a 97-78 loss to Texas back on Nov. 24, the Vols have played with focus and intensity every time out. Pearl hopes the effort level will remain high on the upcoming visits to Tuscaloosa, Starkville and Baton Rouge.

"I'm proud of my team in the sense that I think we've come to play pretty much every night," the coach said. "At this point right now, the Texas game would be the only game that would stand out in my mind (in which) we just weren't as excited about playing as our opponent.

"If you can go through 19 games and really only say that once ..."

He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't need to.

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