KNOXVILLE -- Bruce Pearl spent the last three days branding two words into the brains of his players.
Tonight the University of Tennessee basketball coach will get to see if his efforts produce results.
"Identity, identity, what's our identity?" an animated Pearl repeated after Tuesday's practice. "That's what it's all about: What's our identity?
"Our identity early in the season was toughness. Our identity was finding a way to defend and rebound with a physicality. We have gotten away from that identity. We have got to get back to that identity in order to be successful."
Since the Volunteers began the season 7-0 with wins over Big East powers Pittsburgh and Villanova, they've gone 5-7 heading into tonight's Southeastern Conference game against LSU (10-9, 2-2).
Tennessee (12-7, 2-2) has returned to its early-season form at times, such as the second-half comeback against Vanderbilt and the win at the buzzer at Georgia. But the Vols have spent more time not playing as tough as Pearl would like, particularly in the second-half meltdown last Saturday against Connecticut.
"What do we have to do to be a better basketball team? We've got to play physically," Pearl said. "We've got to play more aggressive. We haven't done that enough, and we're going to get to do that with consistency. We may not get this thing turned into any kind of consistent run of play, but we're going to consistently play hard and tough.
"It's my job to bring it out. It's my job to demand it. It's my job to get it. You can put it on the players, [but] it's my job to get it out of them. And if I can't get it out them, it's my responsibility. So therefore, this is what's going to be required: a level of toughness, a level of physicality. That's what's going to be demanded and expected."
Pearl has been trying to get the same message through to his team. He said reserves Josh Bone, Skylar McBee and Steven Pearl will continue to play because of their toughness.
"It's just playing with heart, playing with passion and just giving your all every time you're out on the floor," said freshman forward Tobias Harris, who said Pearl recently has been the most animated Harris has seen him.
"At times [we have], but a lot of times we haven't played with toughness. That's one of things Coach Pearl got to us and is making us do. He said if you're not going to play tough, you're not going to play."
On the surface, LSU appears to be a team UT could beat even if it not at its best or toughest. The Tigers, fresh off blowout losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss in their last two games, don't have leading scorer Ralston Turner.
But Pearl, always one to talk up opponents, sees it differently.
"I asked our guys, 'Are you ready to play Duke tomorrow?' 'cause this team beat the team [Auburn] that beat the team [Florida State] that beat Duke," he said. "[They're] going to play a great zone, and we had a hard time scoring on them last year."
Yet regardless of the opponent, Pearl is certainly more focused on how his own team begins to rediscover its identity as a physically tough basketball team.
"Tennessee basketball," he said, "is going to regain its identity for our toughness and our physicality. That's going to be our identity, and if we can recapture that, then we've got a chance to improve and build on it."
But as Harris said, Pearl could preach toughness until he's blue in the face, but it's ultimately up to the players to fulfill that identity.
"It's a thing [where] we need to look deep down inside and say, 'We need to play tough,'" he said. "Just Coach Pearl's speech is not going make us instantly play tough. We've got to do that within ourselves and within the team."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288.
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Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...