It might seem too early in the season to be using the phrase "must win.''
The Vols' place in the SEC standings and NCAA tournament seeding will be greatly affected by this week's home games with Vanderbilt (7 p.m. Wednesday) and Florida (1 p.m. Sunday).
"You've got to win your games at home, and you've got to split on the road,'' Pearl said. "You can say it (must-win), I'm not going to use those words. I'd like to play better, shoot it better, space it better and execute better.''
Tennessee (15-3, 3-1 SEC) slipped to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll after its 78-63 loss at Georgia on Saturday.
But more significantly, the Vols dropped a game behind No. 1-ranked Kentucky (19-0, 4-0) and the 21st-ranked Commodores (15-3, 4-0) in the SEC East.
"This is the deepest, most-talented Vanderbilt team I've seen,'' said Pearl, who's 4-0 against the Commodores in Thompson-Boling Arena and 6-2 overall as UT's head coach. "Vanderbilt and Kentucky are playing the best basketball in the league right now.''
The Commodores are riding a nine-game win streak. The short-handed Vols, meanwhile, were dealt a dose of reality at Georgia.
UT senior center Wayne Chism suffered a sprained knee in the first half and was held out of Monday's practice.
"With (Chism) having a sprained knee, and not playing (Monday) and seeing what happens, it's a challenge,'' Pearl said. "He has been living with trainer Chad Newman.''
Chism was receiving electronic stimulus therapy while watching practice after experiencing some swelling in his knee. He's expected to be able to take part in today's walk-through.
Pearl said junior post Brian Williams remains suspended indefinitely as a result of his role in the well-documented Jan. 1 traffic stop that resulted in the dismissal of All-SEC forward Tyler Smith and the four-game suspensions served by Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum.
OUTLIVE Social: Two-time national championship coach Billy Donovan of Florida will join Pearl for the OUTLIVE social fundraiser at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Marriott.
CBS' Gus Johnson and Greg Anthony also will attend the event, which will send its proceeds to the OUTLIVE initiative and UT Medical Center Cancer Institute.
Orange Slices: The Vols have not started an SEC season 4-0 since 1988-89. . . . UT allowed Georgia to shoot .563 from the field, a season-high by an opponent. . . . The Bulldogs led by as many as 24, the most the Vols have trailed by all season.
The Race: An ABC-TV crew attended Monday's practice, putting a microphone on Pearl and interviewing Renaldo "Swiperboy" Woolridge as part of a special called "The Race to March Madness" which is scheduled to air the first week of March.
Bracketology: ESPN's Joe Lunardi's NCAA tournament projection for the Vols is as a No. 3 seed in the East Regional. Lunardi projects UT to play College of Charleston in the first round.
The Vols have an RPI of No. 15 and a schedule strength that ranks 35th according to RealTimeRPI.com.