KNOXVILLE -- It's been fairly common for even Bruce Pearl's best Tennessee basketball teams to take a thumping or two on the road every season.
But this team has been different.
The Volunteers received their third convincing road setback of the season Tuesday night at No. 22 Vanderbilt, and they still haven't been to Kentucky. They will soon, though.
The third-ranked Wildcats (23-1, 8-1 Southeastern Conference) will host road-weary, 12th-ranked UT (18-6, 6-3) on Saturday night.
"We'll go to sleep and wake up tomorrow," senior wing J.P. Prince said moments after Tuesday's dud. "Ain't nothing about it. It's just one loss. You can't look too much into it.
"It's just one game, and it's over."
But it's not just been one game.
It's been three games.
The Vols never had much of a chance in a 22-point loss at Southern California, a 15-point loss at Georgia and their 19-point loss at Vanderbilt. And Kentucky is more talented than any of those teams. And Rupp Arena is widely considered tougher than any of those arenas -- though Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium is no easy stroll, as UT junior point guard Melvin Goins learned firsthand for the first time on Tuesday.
"We were down quite a lot points early, and it's always hard to rally back on someone's home floor when you're down early in a game like that -- especially in an environment like this," Goins said. "We didn't play Tennessee basketball tonight. They came out and fought harder than us. We fought back, but it was too late.
"I don't know if there's any special remedy for home games or away games or anything like that, but they fought harder than us when it counted."
Prince said the biggest key to winning on the road was "comfort." He said the Vols weren't comfortable offensively in the opening minutes, and it took them too long to adjust.
"We just didn't execute," Prince said. "We've got to execute play calls. We've got to understand how to beat them when the counter. They scout, too, and something that we're struggling with is when (opponents) stop our main look, recognizing what they're giving you."
"To win on the road, it takes something special. You've got to deal with a lot on the road, and we just haven't been dealing with it. We're still a young team. We've got a lot of young guys getting used to playing on the road.
"I tip my hat to Vanderbilt. But as far as us, we've just got to play better."
Pearl hasn't denied his team's shortcomings -- he has repeatedly requested more consistency from shooting guards Scotty Hopson and Skylar McBee -- but the coach has been equally steadfast in criticizing those discounting the Vols' potential to live and learn.
"That's a strong word," Pearl said with clear displeasure when asked whether he questioned his team's commitment. "We just got outplayed tonight."
Pearl praised Vanderbilt's "camaraderie and chemistry," and he added that UT's turbulent season hasn't helped the Vols in those areas.
"Vanderbilt's playing with much more confidence than what they were a year ago," Pearl said. "They have confidence in what they do. We're not as confident in what we do, because it's not working as well. Vanderbilt looks a more confident because they're running the same stuff, and it's working better, so the guys sort of buy in a little bit more."
Better starts help confidence, too, especially on the road. Double-digit deficits early in the first half don't typically end well in places like Memorial and Rupp.
Pearl will again lean on his top talents Saturday night, and he'll again hope his youngsters will follow.
"We've just got to try to play better from the start, and not get down," Pearl said. "And guys have to make plays. If some our best players are making plays early on, that will help. Like some of those plays J.P. made late -- if he had made them early, that gives other guys confidence. Who are our top players? Scotty Hopson, and Wayne Chism, and Bobby Maze, and J.P. Those guys have all got to have elevated play early in the game to give the other guys some confidence and courage away from home.
"At the same time, though, you'd like the other guys to do it. But you can't expect them to do it. When you get that third or fourth guy to play well, then all of a sudden it starts to click pretty good."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.