'Nobody's panicking'

After starting the 2008-09 basketball season 5-0 the Tennessee Vols have stumbled their way to a 9-8 record since then.

They were consensus picks to repeat as SEC champs, yet their 5-3 league mark has them tied with Kentucky for fifth place behind LSU (7-1), Florida (6-2), Mississippi State (6-2) and South Carolina (6-3).

A team that rolled into 2009 with a 37-game winning streak at Thompson-Boling Arena has dropped four home contests in the past six weeks.

A 78-77 loss last Saturday to an Auburn team with a lame-duck coach (Jeff Lebo) probably represents the low point of the season to date.

Even with several first-year players filling prominent roles, Tennessee's growing pains weren't expected to be this severe.

Still, heading into tonight's 8 o'clock tipoff against Georgia at Thompson-Boling Arena, head coach Bruce Pearl believes he and his staff can right the ship.

"Nobody's panicking," he said. "We lost one on the road and we're disappointed. But I don't think our confidence is terribly shook."

Maybe not, but you still have to wonder how the Vols will respond after the disappointing loss on The Plains. After all, a similarly lackluster showing at Kansas on Jan. 3 sent the Vols into a tailspin that saw them drop five of eight games.

"I think there was a time a few weeks ago when our confidence was challenged," Pearl conceded, subsequently adding: "Given our inconsistency of play and having lost four games at home, our confidence was definitely challenged and in question. In a lot of ways, they fought through that."

Basically, the Vols battled their way out of that slump by focusing on their improvement rather than their disappointment.

"I know no better way of building confidence than working hard and then feeling prepared," Pearl said. "I am a very limited individual but I have a level of confidence in what we do because of how hard we work. Add to that the fact that we've had success with our system."

Conversely, Georgia has had no success with its system this year. The Bulldogs, 9-14 overall and 0-8 in SEC play, have lost 10 consecutive games. They were very competitive in the earlier meeting with Tennessee Jan. 10 at Athens, however, leading 74-73 until a 13-0 UT spurt in the final three minutes enabled the Vols to prevail 86-77.

"Georgia can take some solace in the fact that, even though they're 0-8 in the league, we might be one of the only teams that they held a second-half lead against," Pearl said. "They won't come in here without confidence. They can play with us. They were right there with us last time we played."

Georgia's front line gave Tennessee trouble last time out. Terrance Woodbury, a 6-7 220-pound senior, scored 18 points in the earlier meeting. Trey Thompkins, a 6-8 245-pound freshman, added 14 points and 9 rebounds that day.

"With Georgia, it's all about Woodbury and their front line," Pearl noted. "Thompkins will be on the All-Freshman team. He's going to be a pro someday. He's going to have to garner attention."

Three weeks after losing to Tennessee, Georgia head coach Dennis Felton was fired and replaced by assistant coach Pete Herrmann. The Dawgs don't look a whole lot different under their interim coach, however, going 0-3 thus far.

"There's not been a complete abandonment of their system and the things that they do," Pearl said.

One noteworthy change under Herrmann is that freshman Dustin Ware has replaced sophomore Zac Swansey as the starting point guard.

"Some of their roles have changed a little bit," Pearl said. "I think Coach (Herrmann) has moved the focus around a little bit."

You have to wonder where Tennessee's focus will be tonight. If the Vols are focused on Georgia, they should win handily. If they're still smarting from the loss at Auburn, however, they could drop their fifth home game of the season to a team with an 0-8 SEC record.

It definitely would be time to panic then.

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