His first three UT squads had a shortage of size but an abundance of toughness – mental and physical. Guys such as Chris Lofton, Dane Bradshaw, JaJuan Smith and Duke Crews were as likely to subdue opponents with their will as with their skill.
This season is different. The 2008-09 Vols are taller and more athletic than their predecessors but they have yet to exhibit the feisty nature that often means the difference between winning and losing.
"I'm worried about my team's toughness all season," Pearl said today. "It's certainly going to be tested, and IS being tested."
The Vols' mental toughness seems to come and go. They did not hold up well against big-game pressure in losses to Gonzaga (83-74 Nov. 30 in Orlando), toTemple (88-72 Dec. 13 in Philadelphia) and to Kansas (92-85 Jan. 3 at Lawrence). The lack of poise showed up in their shooting percentages – 35.5 percent vs. Gonzaga, 36.5 percent vs. Temple and 39.4 percent vs. Kansas.
Gonzaga beat Tennessee by shooting brilliantly (11 of 20) from 3 but Temple and Kansas whipped the Vols with hard-nosed drives to the basket and bullish work on the backboards.
So what can the Vols do to become a tougher team?
"I think you face it," Pearl said. "Sometimes these things can be helped within the framework of the team itself. Our team has been very, very accountable. I think they realize that's an area we're being challenged in. It's either step up or be exposed.
"Our lack of toughness has been exposed, so we're trying to step up. We're not denying it. We're not hiding behind it. We're clearly working on it."
The Vols had better work quickly. With SEC play fast approaching, lack of toughness can be a fatal flaw.