No peak in sight

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl refers to a basketball season as "a process" that builds toward its conclusion in March. Some Vol fans are worried that the process is moving a bit slowly this season, however.

Maybe the 2009-10 Vols are gradually building toward a big finish. Maybe they are pacing themselves. Or maybe they simply are not as good as their preseason hype suggested. Whatever the case may be, the fan base is concerned, despite a 9-2 record and No. 16 national ranking.

Through 11 games the Big Orange has faced one very good team (sixth-ranked Purdue) and one pretty good team (Southern Cal) - losing 73-72 on a neutral floor to the former and 77-55 on the road to the latter. The Vols also struggled to subdue a half-decent DePaul team 57-53 at a neutral site.

Pearl readily admits that the 2009-10 Vols have yet to approach their peak.

"Every team gets it going at different times in the season," he said. "I would hope absolutely that we would have great upside. We need to play a lot better than we're playing right now to beat most of the people on our schedule. I understand that."

What has many Vol fans concerned is that this team seems to be progressing so much slower than most of its predecessors. Consider:

Pearl's first team, the 2005-06 squad, shocked No. 6 Texas 95-76 in Game 6. That group peaked with an eight-game winning streak in late January and early February - beating No. 2 Florida, Mississippi State (on the road), South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Kentucky (on the road), Georgia (on the road) and Auburn. When the Big Orange then lost five of its last eight games, fans fretted that it peaked too soon.

Pearl's 2006-07 squad trounced No. 16 Memphis 76-58 in Game 9, beat No. 15 Oklahoma State in Game 11 and outlasted an unranked but enormously talented Texas team in Game 12. That Vol team appeared to peak at the right time, winning seven of its last eight regular-season games and pushing top-ranked Ohio State to the limit before bowing 85-84 in the NCAA Sweet 16.

Pearl's 2007-08 squad dumped perennial power Gonzaga 82-72 at Seattle to finish December with an 11-1 record. The Vols peaked with a nine-game winning streak that ran from late January to late February, featuring consecutive victories vs. Georgia, at Alabama, at Mississippi State, vs. Florida, at LSU, vs. Arkansas, at Georgia, vs. Auburn and at top-ranked Memphis. After achieving a 25-2 record and No. 1 ranking, the Vols lost three of their nine remaining games, including a 79-60 setback to Louisville in the Sweet 16.

Pearl's 2008-09 squad beat No. 21 Georgetown in Game 5 and No. 24 Marquette in Game 9. That team never truly jelled, however, losing three of its last five games - including a first-round ouster at the hands of Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament - to finish 21-13.

Optimistic Vol fans are hopeful the slow-starting 2009-10 team will warm up in January and February, then catch fire in March.

In the meantime, though, they'd really like to see a spark.

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