LEXINGTON, Ky. - "It was good to be back," Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl said. "I wish I could have helped my team more."
You can argue over how much Pearl helped his Volunteers during their 73-61 loss Tuesday night at Kentucky. Maybe Pearl was the reason they rallied from a 19-point hole in the opening half to trail by seven at the break.
Or maybe Pearl's awkward return after a Southeastern Conference-mandated eight-game suspension was the reason the Big Orange were in that hole. It can't be easy on a bunch of 19- and 20-year-old kids to switch coaches as the Vols have, going from Pearl to associate head coach Tony Jones, back to Pearl for a single game at Connecticut on Jan. 22, back to Jones again, then back to Pearl against the Wildcats.
To show just how much of a strain it might be, the Vols scored exactly 61 points against both UConn's Huskies and UK's Cats. They've averaged eight more than that in the eight SEC games that Jones coached. They've averaged 12 more than that for the season overall.
"People might think it's tough going back and forth," said UT center Brian Williams, who had a tough night with eight points, nine rebounds and two turnovers at the same time his UK counterpart Josh Harrellson was scoring 16 points and pulling down six rebounds. "But if you execute the game plan, it doesn't matter who's coaching."
But the Vols didn't execute the game plan against UK. Just like they apparently didn't execute the game plan against UConn. Their biggest margin of defeat in Jones' eight games as head coach? Six points. And that was in overtime against Florida.
This isn't to say that this is all Bruce's fault. Or that any of it is Bruce's fault beyond the apparent NCAA recruiting violations that led SEC commissioner Mike Slive to suspend him.
It is no disgrace to lose by 11 points at UConn or by 12 at UK. Both those clubs are ranked. Both are talented, especially in the backcourt, where Tennessee has been erratic of late.
But the Vols got a total of 40 points from guards Melvin Goins, Scotty Hopson and reserve Josh Bone. Against a Kentucky front line that is supposed to be the Wildcats' weakness, UT scored only 18.
"The only thing you can control is effort," Williams said. "And we didn't have effort from everybody on the court."
Pearl confirmed this. He spoke of "no shows." He spoke of UK's toughness and rebounding, which showed a 38-28 edge on the glass.
He also spoke of crowd issues behind the UK bench, complaining of language from Big Blue fans in the final half.
"They can say whatever they want," he said. "But for me, the language ... I have family sitting back there."
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart said he placed an extra security person behind the Vols bench in the final half. He said his staff monitored the signs waved by UK students and fans.
If there were words, there seemed to be few. Perhaps a few cries of "Cheater," followed by a more unified chorus of boos just before the game began. Then Pearl and UK coach John Calipari exchanged pleasantries just before the opening tap. Most of UK's venom from that moment forward appeared to be reserved for the Vols or the officials, in somewhat equal doses.
Beyond that, the Cats had their own secret weapon. Last year's star point guard John Wall - the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft - returned to Rupp to cheer on his former teammates.
And on this night, Wall apparently brought more magic than Pearl. Playing at home, the Wildcats shot 15 more free throws, made 14 more and pretty much iced the game from that portion of the court.
And somewhat uncharacteristically of Pearl, he actually allowed the final minute to play out without continually fouling the Cats to extend the game.
Perhaps it was as Pearl joked Monday, that the eight-game suspension was really 10, since his first two games back were at Kentucky, then at Florida this coming Saturday.
If Pearl is 0-2 in SEC games at that point, the Vols almost certainly will be out of the SEC race, their current 5-4 record a full two games behind the Gators.
But at least Bruce is back.
It's now up to others to ponder this final quote from Williams: "We had a game plan and we didn't stick to it at all."