As the Tennessee basketball program battled through the turmoil of Bruce Pearl's eight-game suspension, the head coach stressed one word above all:
Pearl wanted his team to keep its approach as routine as possible, despite his absence.
But rest assured: Pearl's first game back will be anything but normal.
A trip to Rupp Arena is always a strenuous affair. Just ask the Vols' embattled coach, whose teams have only won once there in five tries.
But this year's showdown is particularly significant for a number of reasons.
First, how will the Vols respond with their leader back on the bench? Sure, Pearl took a hiatus from his SEC timeout to coach the team at UConn, but that was a brief one-game episode. Now that Bruce is back for good, how will his players adjust to his intensity? His barking play-calling? The extra attention he'll receive from the not-so-sympathetic Big Blue Nation?
And that's the second reason this game will be important. It will be the most hostile environment the Vols will face this season, particularly with the fanfare surrounding Pearl's return. Tennessee has strung together efficient, if not impressive, road conquests at Georgia, Ole Miss and Auburn. But those teams -- and those environments -- aren't nearly as tough as Rupp.
A win would breed the highest degree of confidence for a team whose self-esteem has fluctuated like Smoky Mountain weather. A loss would cause the Vols (15-8, 5-3 SEC) to further question themselves and continue to flounder with inconsistency in a tenuous division race.
And that cutthroat, parity-infused SEC East competition is the most important reason the Vols need a win Tuesday. A victory would send the Wildcats (16-6, 4-4 SEC) below .500 in conference play. They've held court at home but haven't won a road game in four tries. Undermining their homecourt advantage would open the door for a sweep of the Cats and put two games between the teams with seven remaining.
Every Tennessee-Kentucky battle is physical, hostile and intriguing.
This one is huge.