NASHVILLE - How could the Tennessee men's basketball team look so bad against Vanderbilt on Tuesday night after beating South Carolina by 26 points last Saturday?
"Matchups,'' UT coach Bruce Pearl said without hesitation. "It's the way (Vanderbilt) is built and the way they play. Size, athleticism, their balance.
"We struggled against Georgia and Vanderbilt, with their big front lines, and we'll have a tough game with Kentucky because of the way they're built, too.''
Tennessee (18-5, 6-3 SEC) returns to action Saturday (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.) at Rupp Arena against No. 3 Kentucky (23-1, 8-1), with the ESPN GameDay crew scheduled to be on hand.
As Pearl alluded, and as recent history suggests, it might not be pretty for the Vols.
The Commodores' front line proved too talented and too deep for the short-handed Vols. UT was down by as many as 27 before falling 90-71.
Kentucky's front line is even bigger and better than Vanderbilt's.
Senior Patrick Patterson, 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, has gotten the better of UT senior Wayne Chism in past meetings - and Patterson's not even Kentucky's best big man since the arrival of 6-11, 260 freshman DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins, who averages a double-double with 16.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per outing, is widely considered the most talented post player in the country.
Even if UT wasn't short-handed, the Vols would have a difficult task.
"They're missing Tyler Smith,'' ESPN commentator Jay Bilas said Tuesday night, "and they're missing him more as the season goes along.''
It's not what Tennessee fans want to hear after jumping behind a team that seemingly willed itself to a shocking 76-68 victory over No. 1 ranked Kansas on Jan. 10.
The Vols scored their first win over a top-ranked team in Thompson-Boling Arena history despite the dismissal of Smith and the suspensions of 6-foot-10 post Brian Williams, and guard Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum.
Tennessee did it by hitting 50 percent of its 3-point attempts (9 of 18) while the Jayhawks suffered through one of their worst perimeter shooting games of the season, draining only 26 percent (7 of 27).
The Vols lost by 15 points at Georgia two weeks later, snapping a seven-game win streak and foretelling the struggle UT was prone to have against bigger, more physical teams.
Reality began to set in.
Losing Smith, one of the most multi-dimensional power forwards in the nation, had only compounded the loss of 6-7, 230-pound power forward Emmanuel Negedu to a heart condition in the preseason.
Throw in Williams' suspension - the 278-pounder isn't up to speed after seeing his first post-suspension playing time Tuesday night - and the Vols are without their biggest, their best, and their most athletic players.
"You play with the cards you're dealt,'' Pearl said. "You play to your strengths, and minimize your weaknesses.''
But as UT forward J.P. Prince said, "Your opponent scouts, too.''
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings knew his team had an advantage in the paint, and he came with a plan to exploit it.
"We kept pounding at the rim,'' Stallings said. "Wayne Chism is so good that you have to commit a lot of your defense to him and that's what we tried to do.''
Pearl said the Commodores' defense limited UT's ability to reverse the ball and work it inside to Chism.
That put the onus on the Vols' perimeter shooters, and aside from some late, meaningless 3-pointers from Prince, UT faltered.
"We need to get more production from the two (guard position),'' Pearl said. "We've got to get more from Scotty (Hopson) and Skylar (McBee).''
Hopson is hitting a respectable .388 of his 3-pointers in SEC play, but he has been streaky, making only 1 of 5 against Vanderbilt. McBee is 7 of 28 in league play.
Tatum was just getting back in form (.389 from three on the year) after returning from suspension when he suffered a sprained ankle against South Carolina that will sideline, or at best limit him at Kentucky.
Prince, 5 of 11 beyond the arc in SEC play, shoots the best percentage (.455), while Chism (8 of 24, .333) is the only other healthy UT player connecting on better than 30 percent of his shots in league games.
The problem with the 6-7 Prince or 6-9 Chism attempting more shots from the perimeter is they are also the two top rebounders in the starting lineup.
Past Pearl teams at UT compensated against bigger front lines by pressing to force turnovers and score in transition or by using depth to wear down opponents.
But the Vols have been ineffective pressing with this group, and they lack depth themselves, with the departure of senior wing Josh Tabb, the physical ailments of Negedu and Tatum and the dismissal of Smith.
Not only does Saturday's game at Kentucky appear daunting, but so do remaining road games at Florida (Feb. 23) and Mississippi State (March 6). Home games with Georgia (Wednesday) and those same Wildcats (Feb. 27) present the same front-line difficulties.
"We just have to play better,'' Prince said. "We have to step up.''
It will likely take a big step, at that.