KNOXVILLE -- In a few hours the Tennessee basketball team would play what Vols coach Bruce Pearl would later term, "Our most important game of the year."
But at 4 o'clock Wednesday afternoon, Pearl wasn't so much worried about No. 21 Memphis as his own vacillating Vols. Would they be the vicious Vols that rolled to a 7-0 start and victories over highly ranked Villanova and Pitt? Or would they be the vapid Vols who basically slept through mind-blowing losses to Charlotte and College of Charleston and fell apart against Oakland and Southern Cal?
"It's time to get the swagger back," Pearl said to junior guard Scotty Hopson during UT's pregame shootaround. "It's time to get back to playing Tennessee basketball."
If Wednesday night told us anything it's that Pearl's Vols are still capable of playing like the torrid team that embarrassed Pitt in its own town (though not its own arena) and humbled Villanova inside Madison Square Garden.
Leading by as many as 36 points (91-55), the Vols got more than their swagger back against Memphis in their 104-84 victory. They regained the respect of such national basketball analysts as Jimmy Dykes, who looked at a stat sheet that showed 10 Vols playing 14 or more minutes and said, "Tennessee clearly has the deepest team in the Southeastern Conference. If they're now the most mature, they should win it."
This doesn't mean Dykes necessarily thinks UT will win it. Pearl begins his eight-game Southeastern Conference suspension on Saturday at Arkansas. These Vols struggled to hold focus with Pearl on the sidelines after that 7-0 start. How will they do with assistant Tony Jones running the show for those first eight league contests?
Moreover, as good as Tennessee was this night, much of the credit must go the Vols' 3-point shooting, which had been dead-last in the SEC (.303 percent) entering the Memphis game.
Against the Tigers, the Vols shot 57 percent from over the rainbow, burying 12 triples in 21 attempts. Yes, Memphis hit 10 itself, but many came late, after the outcome was no longer in doubt.
If the Vols had hit 30 percent of their triples against the Tigers, the margin would have been under 10 points. Moreover, had they hit 30 percent all night, Memphis might have stayed close enough to once more shock the Big Orange.
And this is a Memphis team that may be a paper Tiger, given that it relies heavily on its eight freshmen, who had never played a road game until entering Thompson-Boling Arena.
For UT to be back to pre-slump form it needs to win on a night the shots aren't falling from afar.
Still, this is far closer to what the Big Orange Nation has come to expect from the Vols since Pearl took over six years ago than what's been seen the past three weeks during those four losses in six games.
And if it is, the coach's decision to take key minutes away from his son Steven -- a senior walk-on who had been averaging nearly 13 minutes a game this season -- may be a key reason for the resurgence.
Playing just four minutes against the Tigers, Pearl scored one point, pulled down one rebound, handed out one assist, committed one foul and one turnover -- numbers eerily similar to what he had averaged in more than three times that action.
Said Hopson of the change, which presumably gave more minutes to Jeronne Maymon (10 points, four rebounds), "You see guys get a better rhythm. They have a chance to make a mistake and correct, rather than coming out."
Said Pearl the coach with cautious optimism, "We've been our own worst enemy at times. What's going to happen when adversity hits again?"
In other words, will these Vols stagger or swagger when it matters most?