"I think they'll come back with their batteries charged and excited about going down to Tampa and doing something we haven't done in a long time – that's win the SEC Tournament," said Pearl, whose team plays Friday night at 7:30 against the winner of today's Alabama-Vanderbbilt game. "I think that's probably going to be the greatest motivation for us of all the things we can point to."
It certainly should be. Tennessee hasn't won the league tourney since 1979, meaning the drought will reach 30 years if the Vols fall short again this time. Worse, the Big Orange hasn't reached the tournament finals since 1991. Still, worse, UT has made the semifinals only once since '91.
Whether the Vols are having a good year, a bad year or a great year, they seem to self-destruct in the SEC Tournament. More often than not their play in the tourney is embarrassingly poor. Each March, however, they vow that "This will be the year" they buck the trend.
Six days ago Tennessee appeared to have a good chance to do just that. The Vols were coming off their best performance of the year, an 86-70 victory at South Carolina that gave them a three-game winning streak and a share of the SEC East title. They squandered their momentum and a chance to win the division title outright last Sunday, however, with an awful performance against visiting Alabama in the regular-season finale.
Most years the Vols wait until the SEC tourney starts to give such a feeble performance. This year they started a few days early. Still, Pearl is determined to accentuate the positive.
"I will not allow us to put our heads down just because all we did was win the East (co-)championship this year," he said. "If we do that, we've lost touch with reality."
If Tennessee plays in Tampa the way it did vs. Alabama, the Vols are likely to lose their tourney opener – something they've done four times in the past six years. If the Big Orange plays as it did in road wins at Florida and South Carolina the previous week, however, the Vols could claim a trophy and exorcise their demons.
"We like how it feels when you win and you like how it feels when you're able to dominate your opponent," Pearl said.
Tennessee clearly dominated South Carolina one week ago, prompting Vol fans to speculate that the team was jelling at tourney time. That conversation ended abruptly, however, following the listless effort in UT's 70-67 home-floor loss to Bama.
So, which Vol team shows up in Tampa this week – the one that dominated against the Gamecocks or the one that sleep-walked against the Tide? Even Pearl can't say for sure.
"It's all about where we can go from here," he said. "We've positioned ourselves, with the No. 1 seed in the East, to be able to be able to advance and play well in post-season."
Certainly, seeding bodes well for the Vols. But history – 29 years of SEC Tournament futility – does not.