"The foul line is a concern," Pearl conceded. "Our numbers have dipped a little bit from the 70-percent mark, so we're going to have to focus on that coming down the stretch."
At 7-3 in league play, Tennessee is locked in a three-way tie with Kentucky and South Carolina atop the Eastern Division. The Vols have made just 65.9 percent of their foul shots (89 of 135) over the past seven games, however, winning four and losing three. With the East title at stake every time it takes the floor, Tennessee must hit its free throws with greater regularity.
"They all matter now; they really do," Pearl said, later adding: "With four road games (in the remaining six), the chances are they're going to be close games. And close games are decided by free throws."
Fortunately for Tennessee, the Vandy game was not close. The Vols managed to win 69-50. despite missing seven consecutive first-half free throws and finishing the first 20 minutes just 6 of 14.
"We, as a team, were off," Pearl said, noting that "We allowed Vanderbilt to stay in the game in the first half because we didn't shoot free throws well. Six for 14 ... teams will lose games shooting free throws like that."
The coach tries to make free-throw shooting in practice competitive but fun by staging competitions from the foul line. The strategy hasn't worked lately, however.
"We do a lot of contests and things like that," Pearl said, "but we've not shot it well in practice, either."
If players become too focused on their foul shooting, the added stress can make things worse instead of better. That's why Pearl generally says very little about a random case of foul-line futility. When the futility covers a seven-game span, however, it shifts from random mishap to alarming trend.
"I've not made much of an issue of it," Pearl said, "but I think I've got to make an issue of it now.... When it's bad like that, you've got to address it. We've got to get in there and get more volume, put more pressure on ourselves."
Appearances to the contrary, the coach says his players do not lack confidence when they step to the free-throw line.
"My thought would be that maybe our free-throw shooting has been a lack of focus," he said, "rather than a lack of confidence."
Regardless, here's a breakdown of Tennessee's foul shooting over the past seven games:
- 14 of 23 in a 54-52 loss to Memphis (60.8 percent)
- 21of 26 in a 79-73 loss to LSU (80.7 percent)
- 9 of 17 in a 79-63 defeat of Florida (52.9 percent)
- 13 of 18 in a 74-72 win at Arkansas (72.2 percent)
- 10 of 17 in a 78-77 loss at Auburn (58.8 percent)
- 9 of 11 in a 79-48 drubbing of Georgia (81.8 percent)
- 13 of 23 in a 69-50 pasting of Vandy (56.5 percent)
Clearly, a little better foul shooting could've turned UT's losses to Memphis and Auburn into victories and turned a 16-8 overall record into an 18-6 mark. If Tennessee's players didn't understand the importance of foul shooting before, they'll understand it by the time they step on the court Wednesday night at Ole Miss.
As Pearl put it: "I'm hoping it was a lack of concentration and a sense of urgency for just how important they all are."