Pearl, Vols Stand In Razorbacks' Way

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Bruce Pearl, Tennessee's energetic first-year basketball coach, has taken the Southeastern Conference by storm.

Since his arrival, Pearl has done things like jump up on cafeteria chairs to invite UT students to games; work out with his Volunteers at 6:45 a.m. and wear an orange jacket at selected home games.

For today's Arkansas-Tennessee clash in virtually sold-out, 24,535-seat Thompson-Boling Arena, Pearl has arranged for past Vols stars like Allan Houston to be on hand.

"We're very excited about playing in that atmosphere," Pearl said.

He's been very excited about nearly everything this season -- especially the fact that Tennessee (20-4) has clinched the Southeastern Conference East title and is tied with LSU at 11-2 for the overall league lead.

Pearl is a shoo-in for SEC Coach of the Year, and could even contend for national coaching honors, although he deflects questions about that for now.

He'd rather poke fun at himself.

"I could probably make an Armani suit look bad," Pearl said after sweating through a less expensive suit during Wednesday's UT win over Florida and having to change into a sweatsuit for the flight home. "It's not a very pretty look. When I wear my orange coat, I look like an orange barrel on the highway."

But there's no joking about the hoops turnaround at Tennessee, where in the four previous seasons the records were 15-16, 17-12, 15-14 and 14-17.

"Tennessee has been hardened by all those losses in the past, and now Bruce has brought in hope," said Florida coach Billy Donovan.

Arkansas coach Stan Heath said, "Bruce has done a great job. There were some good players in the program, and he's been able to build on it. It's great for the league to have someone besides Kentucky emerge and win at this level. We'd like to have that role, too."

Tennessee, 11-10 against Arkansas, has been in the Hogs' way, winning five of the last six games in the series. The Vols have lost to Arkansas at Knoxville only in 1994, when Scotty Thurman's last-second shot beat UT 65-64.

Arkansas (18-8, 7-6), with just one SEC road win this season and three in Heath's four seasons, wouldn't seem a threat to break through in Knoxville today, but Hogs center Steven Hill perked up when he learned about Tennessee's pregame throwback festivities -- as if Arkansas were some kind of Homecoming punching bag.

"That can definitely work in our favor," Hill said.

Hogs guard Jonathon Modica said, "I didn't know that. This is a great opportunity to get an upset. It would be great to spoil their own day. I'd say they're as worried about us as we're worried about them."

Modica reminded, "We've been counted out (of the NCAA Tournament) for the last two games, but now we're making some believers. Maybe we can make more non-believers into believers."

Ronnie Brewer, who leads the SEC in scoring with 18.5 points per game, recognized, "We've got to find the same ingredients that worked at home and use them on the road."

First, Arkansas must corral Tennessee sharpshooter Chris Lofton, a 6-2 sophomore guard who averages 17.7 points and has made 47.5 percent of his 3-point shots.

"We've got to make him put the ball on the floor," Modica said.

Heath figures to try Eric Ferguson, Dontell Jefferson and Brewer against Lofton, as Arkansas did against Alabama guard Ronald Steele.

"Dontell has some length and Ronnie does, too," Heath said. "But Lofton has really developed this season, and he's arguably the MVP of the league right now."

The Vols have two other guards who have been mentioned by SEC coaches as MVP types this season -- 6-2 senior C.J. Watson (15.1 average, 101 assists) and 6-4 junior Dane Bradshaw (7.4 average, 102 assists).

Tennessee's big men don't get much publicity, but Heath said, "Major Wingate (6-10 center, 10.7 average) is having his best year."

Hill added, "Wingate and Andre Patterson (10.1 average) are very solid. Both of them were highly touted out of high school. Hopefully we can take advantage of our size on the inside, but we've got our work cut out."

Darian Townes, coming off a 15-point game for Arkansas against Alabama, said, "Tennessee is a real aggressive team. This will be a transition game and that's what we've practiced for. It always comes back to the road thing. We're coming together as a team and we've got to fight for the 'W' so we can get a good seeding in the tournament."

Which one -- SEC or NCAA?

"Both," Townes said, grinning. "But I was thinking about the NCAA Tournament."

So is the Razorback Nation, much of which is looking ahead to possible wins over Mississippi State and Georgia, and perhaps more in the SEC tourney.

Arkansas could simplify things by winning today.

"I think if we can win a game like this, we should be in the NCAA Tournament," Heath said. "That should take us over the hump."

To get there, the Hogs must first solve Tennessee's press -- which Heath says mainly operates from the baseline to free throw line in backcourt.

Pearl agreed, "We don't trap and re-trap. We don't have the athleticism or depth to dictate tempo like Coach (Nolan) Richardson's Arkansas teams could."

What the Vols have is hunger.

"We desperately want to win," Pearl said. "We've tasted enough failure at Tennessee."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories