"What needs to happen for this team now?"
Pearl squinted, like he sometimes does when he's thinking hard.
"I think,'' he began, hesitating before finishing his sentence, "I think we need some consistency. That's what we've got to have.''
The 19th-ranked Vols (21-7, 9-5 SEC) started their ninth different lineup in the 74-65 win over Kentucky on Saturday, opening the game with their most impressive half of basketball in charging to a 40-29 lead. Seniors Wayne Chism, Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince were joined by junior Brian Williams and sophomore Scotty Hopson.
"I think our rotation is pretty much set, we've got a comfort level,'' UT associate head coach Tony Jones said Sunday. "The players who served suspensions are all back and in the flow, Cam Tatum is nearly 100 percent from his ankle injury and Wayne Chism played a game without getting nicked up.
"We have the capability to play our best basketball here at the end of the season.''
The Vols play host to Arkansas (14-15, 7-7) at 7 p.m. Wednesday (TV: CSS) before finishing the regular season on the road against Mississippi State (21-8, 9-5) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The legacy of this season's Tennessee team remains in the balance. The Vols have enjoyed some of the finest wins of the Pearl Era, but also, two of the worst losses.
The wins over No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky brought fans to their feet, but UT's 22-point loss at Southern Cal and 19-point loss at Vanderbilt rank among the top two most lopsided in Pearl's five years with the Vols.
UT's attrition has been well documented and is an obvious factor with Pearl shifting the lineup with each game in an attempt to set up favorable matchups.
"We're not talented enough . . . to necessarily impose our will on the opponents,'' Pearl said. "But we are smart enough and experienced enough to execute different gameplans.
"When you have as many roster adjustments as we've had, I don't think anyone gets complacent.''
Tennessee has made history of sorts this season, becoming the first team at UT to defeat two top-five opponents in the same season since Ray Mears' 1976-77 team.
That was arguably the best "Ernie and Bernie" team, as the Vols, led by Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld and Mike Jackson, went an amazing 4-0 against top-five teams that season.
UT finished 22-6 that season - 16-2 in the SEC to tie for the league crown - before losing in overtime to Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Pearl and the Vols are intent on becoming the first UT team to advance past the Sweet 16, and that's why Jones said the team is keenly aware of the importance of closing the regular season strong.
"We have to start thinking about the seeding now,'' Jones said. "What will this last win do for us in the mind of the selection committee?''
The Vols were projected as a No. 6 seed in ESPN's "bracketology" prior to the win over Kentucky.
But an updated RealTimeRPI.com rating of 14th indicates UT picked up at least one seed position by beating the Wildcats.
The Vols could potentially move up or drop two more spots depending on their regular-season and SEC-tournament finish.
Tired Cats: Pearl said Kentucky looked fatigued down the stretch, pointing out the Wildcats played Thursday and the Vols played Tuesday.
"But we've had five occasions this season where there was an advantage/disadvantage,'' Pearl said, referring to one team getting more off-time than the other heading into a game. "The other four times, we've been on the wrong end of it.''
Most notably, the Vols played a late game at LSU on a Thursday and didn't return home until 3:30 a.m. on Friday heading into a Saturday home game with South Carolina which had been off a week.
Tennessee didn't look too tired in beating the Gamecocks by 26 points.