Train wreck coming?

Bruce Pearl's first three Tennessee basketball teams were characterized by the three Es - energy, effort and enthusiasm. Win or lose, the Vols would exhibit those traits.

Not lately, however. Several opponents have played with more energy, more effort and more enthusiasm than the Big Orange the past two seasons - none more dramatically than Southern Cal, which mauled Tennessee 77-55 Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles.

"I thought we lacked energy right from the beginning," Pearl conceded earlier today. "The one aspect you can control is the passion you play with and the intensity and effort. That's what has us (coaches) the most frustrated and discouraged."

Pearl has said many times that it's not his job to coach effort, insisting the players must be accountable in that area. Asked what the Vols can do to get their effort level where it needs to be, sophomore Scotty Hopson replied:

"I think just being excited about playing the game of basketball. Go out and love the game, play the game like it needs to be played. Our leadership will definitely have to step up. Even myself, I'll have to lead better, and just come out and play basketball the way it needs to be played."

The Vols certainly failed in that regard on Saturday. Although the jet lag following a long flight and the three-hour change in time zones made Tennessee's task a little tougher, the 22-point loss can't be blamed on those two factors. After all, the Vols arrived in LA on Thursday and had a full day to acclimate before playing on Saturday. Moreover, the Big Orange made a similar cross-country excursion in December of 2007 before whipping a very good Gonzaga team 82-72 in Seattle.

"Those are all excuses," Pearl said of the jet lag and time-zone obstacles. "I can't excuse what I see and what you see.... We had time to recover from that to be able to play with greater intensity."

Clearly, Tennessee's intensity and effort were missing in action on Saturday. When asked if boosting the effort level of a senior-laden team is more of a challenge, Pearl replied: "It can be harder because we have some guys that are set in their ways. But I think they see it, and I think they'll work to overcome it."

Saturday's loss at Southern Cal was reminiscent of last December's 88-72 loss at Temple in that the Vols went on the road and failed to match the energy of a fired-up opponent.

"We went to Temple last year and had a similar result," Pearl recalled. "We learned some from it. Did we learn enough to right the ship completely? No."

Instead, the Vols suffered a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament last March and finished 21-13, matching the worst loss total of Pearl's coaching career.

The 2008-09 team will be remembered for giving inconsistent effort and faltering in the face of adversity. The effort this season, though still spotty, had been better until the USC fiasco. As for adversity, the 2009-10 Vols hadn't really encountered any until they faced a 33-20 halftime deficit on Saturday. They promptly wilted.

"Some of the things we saw Saturday are some of the things we saw a year ago," Pearl said. "So, there's that 'Uh-oh, here we go again. We really haven't turned the corner. We really haven't grown enough to be a championship team.'"

The Vols scarcely resembled a competent team - much less a championship team - Saturday in Los Angeles. With 20 regular-season games remaining, however, they have a chance to right the ship.

"We still have some time to get that going," Pearl said. "But, obviously, we're running out of time."

Tennessee won eight of its first nine games en route to a No. 9 national ranking. The loss was a 73-72 squeaker to No. 6 Purdue at the Virgin Islands on Nov. 23. Southern Cal was the first real test since then, and Pearl was eager to see if his team would step up its play against the stepped-up level of competition.

"We didn't," he said.

The reason? Tennessee didn't match the Trojans' energy, effort or enthusiasm. Based on recent practices, Pearl couldn't have been terribly surprised.

"There are no excuses," he said. "I don't like to be proven right but I've not been able to get 'em to train yet."

And, unless that changes soon, a once-promising season could turn into a "train" wreck.

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