KNOXVILLE -- Even when he had his full complement of players, Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl tried warning people that the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division was better than most thought.
"Trust me, you're going to see it," Pearl said after one preseason practice. "Five teams in our division are good enough to be in the NCAA tournament."
A tough week has slightly modified Pearl's stance.
"There might be six if Georgia keeps playing well," he said Wednesday night.
The 14th-ranked Volunteers (15-4, 3-2) started league play with three wins over Western Division opponents that beat them last season, but they have lost two consecutive games they won last season -- at Georgia and home against Vanderbilt.
Wednesday's 85-76 loss to the No. 21 Commodores (16-3, 5-0) knocked UT two games back in league play, and things won't get much easier with a Sunday visit from Florida (15-5, 4-2).
"With great consistency, I've told you how strong the SEC East is," Pearl said. "It's going to be a battle, and it's going to be a struggle, and we're just going to have to continue to go game in and game out. The formula for winning championships is you've got to win them all at home and get some on the road.
"We just lost one at home, so that's going to make it tougher, but this league is going to kind of beat up on each other a little bit. There's already been a lot of road wins, because there's so many good teams. Which teams will handle success? Which teams will handle the challenges?
"How will my team now handle losing a couple of games in a row in the SEC?"
That last question is the most crucial, at least in the immediate sense.
"I think any time when things are going right, and there's a lot of smiles, and you're coming in the locker room happy and excited, it's easy to come out and play the next game, and it's easy to come to practice the next day," point guard Bobby Maze said. "But what about when you come off a back-to-back loss in conference play? I think this is going to say a lot about us and our character. Our character is going to be tested as individuals to see how we can overcome this.
"We have a good Florida basketball team that's going to come in here Sunday. I think the turnout will be a nice crowd out there, and all eyes are on us: Do we go down from here, or do we step up? I think we'll do a good job of stepping up and understanding that conference play is going to be tough this season."
Answers must come on the defensive end, Pearl and Maze said. Georgia and Vanderbilt shot better than 50 percent against the same Vols who used stifling defense during their preceding seven-game winning streak.
Vanderbilt had little trouble in half-court sets. Ball screens and motion got the Commodores open looks all night, particularly when they took back the lead and pulled away midway through the second half.
"The stats show it: Coach is right," Maze said. "The teams that we hold under 40 percent shooting, those are the games that we win. And the games that teams shoot 50 percent from the field, I just think that's unacceptable. We've got to do a better job of defense and making it harder on guys to make shots. That was a disappointing loss, because that was one of those games that I felt like we needed to win, in order to tie for first or be in first. And it was a game where we didn't handle our business."
"Apparently the focus, whatever it was these past couple of games, it didn't help us come out with a victory. So the focus is definitely going to have to be better. Guys are going to have to pay more attention to the scouting report. We were well prepared for that game. Coach said 100 times that (Jermaine) Beal was going to come off that screen, and you have to hedge him, because he's going to shoot that 3. And we didn't do it.
"It's not on one player. It's on all of us."
Pearl said defense has never been a bigger key than now during his five seasons at UT. The Vols' reduced roster has left a smaller margin for error. Double-digit deficits are tougher to overcome, because depth doesn't allow UT to attack in waves.
"Offensively, we are going to struggle at times, and that's OK," Pearl said. "But you cannot win when you're going to struggle some offensively if you don't play great defense. We've got to play great defense. It's the only way we have a chance to win.
"There's not enough offensive firepower. We don't have as many options."
UT rallied late to overcome Ole Miss, but the Vols will be hard-pressed to repeat that every game -- particularly while senior forward Wayne Chism battles a sore knee that limits his offensive production.
"You can't control every shot that you take," Maze said. "You can have an off night. But you can control your defense, because that's your body language, your attitude. That's something you can control -- sliding your feet and moving your feet. I've always said I felt like any guy can play defense. That's just your heart. I'm never upset when a guy misses shots, but defensively we've got to do a better job than 50 percent."
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