Time to exit the toll road?

As Tennessee's basketball team was winning its first five games following the Jan. 1 suspension of four players on drug and weapons charges, many callers to Knoxville sports-talk shows essentially said: "Good riddance. Don't bring any of 'em back."

Head coach Bruce Pearl offered very little comment during that time, and with good reason. He knew some of the players were less guilty than others. He also knew the rigors of SEC play eventually would take a toll on a team featuring just six scholarship athletes. Sure enough, that toll showed up Saturday in Athens, where the Vols were both depleted and defeated, suffering a 78-63 loss to Georgia.

After dismissing the guiltiest of the guilty parties (Tyler Smith) on Jan. 8, Pearl decided to reinstate the two least-guilty parties (Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins) on Jan. 17 and leave one player (Brian Williams) indefinitely suspended.

Pearl qualified the return of Tatum and Goins by noting that the playing rotation would not change. True to his word, he played neither in last Tuesday night's win at Alabama and gave each only a few token minutes in Saturday's loss at Georgia.

That brings us to the gut-wrenching part: Because UT fans love an underdog, the Big Orange may be able to win its remaining home games with minimal contributions from Tatum and Goins. If the Vols are to win enough road games to contend for the SEC East title, however, they'll need more than six scholarship players contributing. That was evident from the lopsided loss at Georgia.

"I think we showed a little bit of our inexperience," Pearl said, adding that "some of the guys who are out there playing more prominent roles - Renaldo (Woolridge) or Kenny (Hall) or Josh Bone - showed signs of being a little inexperienced on the road versus the way they've been playing at home."

With home games against Vanderbilt on Wednesday and Florida on Sunday, this is the ideal time for Tennessee to begin blending Tatum and Goins into the rotation. That way they can be ready for an imposing February schedule that features five road tests in the first seven games - at LSU (Feb. 4), at Vanderbilt (Feb. 9), at Kentucky (Feb. 13), at South Carolina (Feb. 20) and at Florida (Feb. 23).

"I think there is a difference between playing at home and on the road when it comes to experience," Pearl said.

That difference is obvious. After all, Tennessee was good enough with six scholarship players to beat a top-ranked Kansas team in Knoxville but not good enough to beat an 8-8 Georgia team in Athens.

That's why giving Tatum and Goins more minutes Wednesday vs. Vandy and Sunday vs. Florida projects to be an important priority.

"Depending upon the quality of play of everybody else, I think it's going to be very important," Pearl conceded.

The coach hinted that the reintegration of Tatum and Goins into the mix actually began in the late stages of last Saturday's game.

After emphasizing that he had not conceded defeat at that point, Pearl admitted there was "a design with about four minutes to go" at which time he "balanced the fact that we needed to get their feet wet, get them back out there again for the future."

With the meat of the schedule at hand, it appears the future is now.

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