If the No. 1 ranking was a burden, it's a burden no more. The Vols dropped to No. 4 in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls released earlier today.
Pearl has deftly avoided saying his team staggered a bit under the weight of the No. 1 ranking. His comments since the Kentucky game insinuate that may have been the case, however.
"One of the things that happens sometimes is that the kids focus on the end result (title) instead of the process (improving on a game-by-game basis)," he said. "They focus on the prize. There was a lot of pressure on this Tennessee basketball team to hold serve at home (vs. UK) because of the kind of season we've had and the road that we've traveled."
Tennessee appeared to be feeling no pressure at the start of Sunday's game with Kentucky, racing to a 20-5 lead. The Vols hit a lull immediately thereafter, however, enabling the Wildcats to claw their way back into the game.
"I don't think we relaxed," Pearl said. "I think Kentucky just started playing better. Eventually, the ball control slowed the tempo of the game down. At one point we fouled them five consecutive possessions. The whistle stops play, and that's how they were able to creep back into the game."
Sophomore forward Tyler Smith, Tennessee's most consistent player in recent weeks, suggested that facing teams the caliber of Memphis, Vandy and Kentucky in succession would be taxing, regardless of a team's ranking.
"Oh yeah. You can feel it mentally," he said. "I don't think as much physically because Coach prepared us for stuff like this.
"We've got to think so much. We've got school and games, and we travel during the week and sometimes the weekends. It took a toll but I think we did pretty good."
Tennessee posted an emotionally draining 66-62 upset of top-ranked Memphis at Memphis on Feb. 23, then supplanted the Tigers at No. 1 in the polls last Monday. The Vols had less than 72 hours to come down from the Memphis high before facing No. 18 Vanderbilt last Tuesday in Nashville. After a hard-fought three-point loss in Music City, the Vols had to get up yet again for Sunday's showdown vs. Kentucky with the SEC East title on the line. That was a taxing nine-day stretch.
Given all they've been through lately, you wonder: Do the Vols have enough left in the tank to handle another tough test Wednesday night at Florida?
"Oh yeah," Smith said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere going down there and I think our team is going to be ready."