The Vols won at Georgia to open league play, then lost their SEC home opener to Kentucky. They beat South Carolina and won at Vanderbilt, then fell at home to LSU. They defeated Florida and won at Arkansas, then lost at Auburn. They held serve at home against Georgia and Vandy, then bowed at Ole Miss and at Kentucky. After beating Mississippi State and winning at Florida last week, the Vols can post their first three-game win streak in league play by prevailing at South Carolina Thursday night.
"We've got ourselves a great, great challenge," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "We're trying to do something that we haven't been able to do all year."
Winning three SEC games in a row doesn't sound like a monumental task, but it thus far has eluded the erratic Vols of 2008-09.
"If there's anything we've been all year," Pearl mused, "it's consistently inconsistent."
Since the Vols and Gamecocks sit atop the SEC East with 9-5 records, Tennessee can clinch at least a tie for the division title by winning Thursday night at Columbia. Another win Sunday afternoon against visiting Alabama would lock up the division crown outright. Even if UT loses Thursday night, the Vols could still tie for the division championship if they beat Bama and the Gamecocks lose at Georgia this weekend. Basically, the SEC East race has been reduced to five crucial days.
"It's about what's next, and that's at South Carolina, where they're 16-1 and undefeated in the league," Pearl said. "We're playing for all the marbles but it's a two-game week. These games both matter – each almost as much as the other one."
Although Tennessee was a consensus pick to win the SEC this season, the Vols have never shown the maturity or the consistency to put together a string of wins. That frustrated their coach but it didn't surprise him.
"I've gotten just about exactly what I expected from this team," Pearl said. "I put myself out there by saying I would like to have done better with this team, and I accept responsibility for not (doing better). But, as far as what my expectation was, this is it. You're looking at it."
Noting his team's "many new pieces, the lack of quickness and some of the challenges shooting the basketball – having to replace 82 percent of our 3-point shooting," Pearl asked, "why wouldn't this be what you would expect? Because some pundit said differently?"
Even if the head man knew there would be some bumps in the road, that hasn't made the ride to an 18-10 record any more enjoyable this season.
"I'm not happy with the fits and starts," he said. "I'm just as frustrated (as the fans) because I want to win a championship every year. But this is exactly what I expected, and I said so from the very beginning."