As the head man put it: "The loss ... will that get us to refocus or will it shake our confidence, too?"
Essentially, this evening's 7 o'clock tipoff against North Carolina A&T at Thompson-Boling Arena represents the calm before the storm for 16th-ranked Tennessee (8-2). The Aggies (4-7) look to be the last sure win for a while, since the next three games are at Memphis (7-2), vs. Charlotte (9-1) and vs. Kansas (10-0).
Tennessee desperately needs an impressive win. The Vols achieved a No. 9 national ranking after posting an 8-1 start but some glaring weaknesses were exposed in the loss to USC. They shot miserably from the field (34.5 percent), horrendously from beyond the arc (9.1 percent) and poorly from the foul line (52.0). They registered just 5 assists and lost the backboards 43-21. Moreover, UT allowed an offensively challenged USC team to hit 56 percent of its field-goal tries. Worst of all, the Vols were out-hustled - something they couldn't blame on jet lag.
"I think guys had their legs," sophomore Scotty Hopson said. "I don't think we gave the effort. I think it was more mental than physical."
Perhaps the Vols will regain their mental edge tonight. Based on this week's practices, Hopson fully expects that.
"I think guys are ready to play," he said. "We want this game so bad that I think we'll go in, be focused and bounce back in this one."
The good news: Tennessee probably can't play any worse tonight than it did last time out. The bad news: The Vols probably can't plug all of their leaks in one week. That's OK, though, because Pearl doesn't expect to.
"You can't fix the whole picture," he said. "You've just got to take care of yourself. If each individual can be accountable for what they do and how they do it - don't worry about the picture but worry about themselves - we'll be fine."
Some fans aren't so sure. They see the same deficiencies in this team - poor shooting from the free-throw line and 3-point range, inconsistent defense and lapses in effort - that characterized the 2008-09 team. Pearl sees those deficiencies, too, but isn't terribly surprised.
"It's the same group as a year ago," he said. "Melvin (Goins) has replaced Josh Tabb. Kenny (Hall) has basically replaced Emmanuel (Negedu). Skylar (McBee) is a freshman who's playing 10 minutes a game, so basically it's the same group as a year ago who is experiencing the same problems as a year ago - not shooting the ball well from 3 or free and not being very solid defensively."
Hopson, who leads the team in 3-point shooting at 46.5 percent, believes the 2-for-22 performance at USC was a fluke that can be overcome with a little positive energy.
"I think guys just have to shoot with more confidence," he said. "If the last shot didn't fall the next one will. You miss a few shots and guys get down on themselves. Shooting with confidence is going to be a big key."
Calling the USC debacle "a learning experience," Hopson added: "There was a lot of things we can take from the game that we can learn from and get better at."
There's a lot of room to get better, all right.
NOTES: North Carolina A&T is led by sixth-man Dwane Joshua, who averages 16.0 points per game. The Aggies' starting lineup consists of 6-9 Thomas Coleman (9.3 points, 8.8 rebounds per game), 6-7 DeMetrius Upchurch (3.5 points per game), 6-6 Robert Johnson (11.2 points per game), 6-3 Nic Simpson (10.6 points per game) and 6-0 Tavarus Alston (14.9 points, 3.9 assists per game).... The Aggies shoot just 38.3 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from beyond the arc, yet they rank 10th nationally in 3-pointers made at at 9.3 per game.... Tennessee won the only previous meeting with North Carolina A&T 93-59 in 2007. The Vols launched a school-record 50 shots from 3 in that game, making just 14.... Bruce Pearl is 14-0 in December home games at UT.... Tonight's game will be televised by CSS.