The Vols are 4-2 in SEC play but carry a lackluster 13-7 overall record due to non-league losses to Temple, Kansas, Memphis and Gonzaga (twice). As a result, they did not get a single vote in the most recent Associated Press poll.
Is Pearl concerned? Not really. Still, he concedes that he and assistant coach Tony Jones probably put too many hurdles in front of a youthful UT squad by assembling such a rugged schedule this season.
"It was one or two (games) too tough, just based on the math," Pearl said, noting that games with Temple and Gonzaga may have pushed the slate over the top. Still, arranging those games made perfect sense at the time.
Pearl said Tennessee scheduled a home-and-home with Temple last year in order to get the 2007-08 opener in newly-remodeled Thompson-Boling Arena on national TV. The ploy worked, and UT got a chance to "show it off on ESPN," the coach noted.
The decision to schedule a home-and-home with Gonzaga last year was based on sound logic that simply didn't pan out.
"The Gonzaga game worked exactly opposite of how I thought it would," Pearl noted. "I thought we'd go out to Seattle (last season), take one on the chin, but have Gonzaga at home (this season) and be able to get 'em here. It worked the opposite of how I thought it would work."
If Tennessee had scheduled a couple of relative pushovers instead of Temple and Gonzaga, the 2008-09 Vols would be 15-5 instead of 13-7. Pearl concedes that "Those two games probably put us one or two games on the heavy side, but you've got to have those (opportunities for quality wins)."
SEC East leader Florida (18-4) and West leader LSU (17-4) padded their overall records this season by playing weak non-conference schedules. Given the overall inexperience of Tennessee's roster, was Pearl tempted to do the same?
"With five new players, yeah," the coach admitted. "But I don't think you can schedule based on personnel.... Our schedule's been a function of the growth and development of this program, so I wouldn't change.
"Could we have developed a little more confidence (by facing softer foes) early in the season? Yes, I think we could have. But the answer as to whether or not it was the right thing is going to be (based on) what continues to happen now."
It's no secret that teams sometimes gain more from a loss than they do from a victory. Tennessee's Jan. 3 setback at Kansas, the defending national champ, was just such a game.
Unfortunately for the Vols, Kansas was one of five teams to beat UT in January. The Big Orange scarcely resembled the team that dumped Siena and Georgetown in the Old Spice Classic at Orlando in late November. Pearl says Orlando did not provide an accurate reading of where his team was, however.
"The players may have been confident leaving Orlando but I never was particularly confident," the coach recalled. "I kept talking about how much more we had to learn.
"I don't think we were playing great in Orlando; I thought we were playing well for early in the season. I don't think we made enough progress between Orlando and January, and that was part of our downfall."
Although Pearl is not happy with Tennessee's 13-7 record, he understands that a tough schedule can make the road to March Madness somewhat bumpy.
"Have we lost to a bad team yet? No," he said. "The average Sagarin rating for the teams we've lost to is 30.
"No excuses.... We haven't beaten enough of the good teams in my mind. A couple more in the left side of the (won-lost) column is where I'd like to be but we've not lost to a bad team yet."