Although the Vols are 6-1 and ranked No. 10 nationally, Pearl says his talented but inexperienced team is light-years from being as good as last year's team that went 31-5. Whereas UT returned virtually its entire starting lineup in 2007-08, the puzzle for 2008-09 has some gaping holes in it.
"We were much further ahead a year ago than we are now," Pearl said. "The biggest area that we were further ahead offensively (last year) is that we didn't have any new pieces to fit in, and we obviously still have (this year).
"Defensively, I think we were probably way, way more advanced (last year). We won the regular season because of defense and we led the league in rebounding last year. That's why we won the championship."
The 2008-09 defense has the coach very concerned, particularly the full-court pressure defense. This year's team, in spite of its length and athleticism, is wildly inconsistent in that area. The youthful Vols seem tentative – even somewhat confused – at times.
"I don't see the quickness. I don't see the anticipation," Pearl said. "You need five guys to be able to press. If we can't press and turn over some of the teams that have been on our schedule (through early December), it's going to be hard to press and turn over some of the teams that are about to get on our schedule."
Although inexperience limits their effectiveness in applying full-court pressure, the Vols still manage to disrupt opponents a bit simply because of their exceptional length and agility.
"Can we press and annoy?" Pearl asked rhetorically. "Can we dictate some tempo? Can we put ourselves in position to be handed one (turnover)? Yes. But can we dictate? I don't think this team is going to be able to do that."
It should be noted that Tennessee relies heavily on four first-year players. Junior college transfer Bobby Maze starts, as do true freshmen Scotty Hopson and Renaldo Woolridge. Redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum started one game but normally fills the role of sixth man.
Given the relative inexperience of this team, staying focused and composed is a problem at times. That was especially evident in an 83-74 Game 6 loss to Gonzaga and in a lethargic 87-69 Game 7 defeat of UNC Asheville.
"I would hope that the team would be further along at this point," Pearl said. "It needs to be farther along. It's not about hunger or softness. It's about understanding and experience. The effort's been good but the learning's been slow."
Sometimes you wonder if there is anything that pleases the coach about the 2008-09 squad. The plus-13 rebound margin, perhaps?
"We're a better rebounding team than we've ever been," Pearl conceded. "And we are deeper than we were last year. I think we have more potential for growth than last year's team. We need it because we are not where we need to be."
The coach also is happy with his team's conditioning, something that proved crucial in Game 5 vs. Georgetown. Down 65-57, Tennessee outscored the weary Hoyas 33-13 over the final nine minutes to prevail 90-78.
"I thought conditioning was clearly a factor in our win against Georgetown," Pearl noted. "You could see we were conditioned to win that game."