SCOTT: Pearl making waves in SEC

Fourteen years as an assistant coach at Stanford, Boston College and Iowa and 13 years as a head coach at Southern Indiana and Wisconsin-Milwaukee looked good on Bruce Pearl's resume.

But Tennessee? In the SEC? At first glance, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton's decision to even interview Pearl, a Boston native, and give him serious consideration for the Vols' head basketball coaching vacancy seemed like a mix of grits and clam chowder, barbecue and Boston baked beans.

 

Along the way, Pearl butted heads with Memphis' John Calipari over a recruit who signed with Memphis.

 

Then he drew the ire of LSU coach John Brady when he made a "playful" gesture to the crowd as he subbed in Dane Bradshaw, a popular target for derision from opposing SEC fans. Following the game Brady suggested Pearl should "show a little class."

 

Then as Tennessee students stood outside Thompson-Boling Arena for the recent showdown with then-undefeated and second-ranked Florida, Pearl told the students, "This is your team. I'm your coach. And we're going to kick Florida's ... ." It made for a lovely moment on national sports highlight shows.

 

A professor of proctology studies, he's not. But a pain in the backside? Depends on your perspective. He might not be the most popular guy in the SEC right now, but Pearl is just about the most popular coach on the Tennessee campus these days – still well behind the legend, Pat Summitt, but ahead of Phil Fulmer.

 

Of course, it helps to beat Florida 80-76 at home in front of 24,011, many of whom only recently came to the startling realization that Tennessee offers men's basketball as a varsity scholarship sport.

 

"It's great for us to be a part of something like this," senior forward Andre Patterson said. "The first two years I was here, this place was like a ghost town."

 

Actually, some of those fans starting jumping on the bandwagon about three months ago when it became apparent these Vols were going to run and gun and have some fun.

 

"They are one of the hottest teams in America," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "I don't think anybody expected them to be where they are right now."

 

Expect, of course, the Vols themselves.

 

"He's the kind of coach that makes you believe you can win," sophomore guard Chris Lofton.

 

Pearl inherited a team that went 14-17 in 2004-05 after four mostly unsuccessful and innocuous seasons under former coach Buzz Peterson.

 

"You have to taste some of the bitterness of some defeats. That's what experience is," Pearl said. "I'm new; they're not. These guys have been through it before, and you've got to give the past some credit. It's there. I told ‘em they've won enough to know how to win, they've lost enough to not want to taste it ever again."

 

Pearl also inherited a team willing to change and hungry to win.

 

"They've lost enough to have their confidence shaken," Pearl said, "but they've trained hard enough to believe in a new season. Every year's a new season."

 

Pearl brought in a fresh approach that hasn't been seen in the SEC since Nolan Richardson was winning national championships at Arkansas with his "40 Minutes of Hell" defensive pressure. In a conference where coaches seem to want to control every possession and every little movement like a demolition's expert working on a bomb, Pearl seems willing to unleash his players and let them force the issue and run the floor.

Entering the weekend, Tennessee led the SEC in steals (11.06 per game), turnover margin (plus-7.69 per game), turnovers forced (20.2 per game), assist-turnover ratio (1.42 assists for every turnover) and scoring offense (83.6 points per game).

 

That's not playground recklessness. That's organized chaos with the speakers turned up to 11.

 

"I think we've just got heart," Pearl said. "We don't back down from nobody. We're going to come at you for 40 minutes. We're going to play hard. That's just how it is."

 

That was evident in the Florida game when the Vols forced 19 turnovers with nine steals, recorded 17 assists to 13 turnovers and outrebounded Florida 40-35.

 

"This is a shot that will be heard around the country," Pearl said after the game.

 

The only real negative came when the Tennessee fans stormed the court as if the basketball program had never won a significant game. Think Vanderbilt beating Tennessee in football last fall and then multiply it by 10 and the crowd response was a bit embarrassing. The SEC even had to fine Tennessee $5,000 for allowing it to happen. Somewhere, Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld and Dale Ellis had to be cringing.

 

On one hand, the crowd support, "was off the charts terrific," Pearl said. On the other hand, "We've got to learn how to handle it with our crowd control and understand the responsibility that we have to the safety and well being of our guests," Pearl said. "If this fine draws attention to that fact, let's talk about. Let's congratulate the fans on an

amazing atmosphere, but understand we can't have that happen for the safety of the opponents.

 

"Again, I'm not at all unhappy with our fans or upset with the students. I share their enthusiasm. But we did it this one time. Let's not do it again."

 

The Vols also displayed an ability to handle their newfound fortunes.

 

Pearl's team went back to work after the Florida game and pounded Mississippi State 88-65 and then beat South Carolina 81-65.

 

In the same week, the Tennessee (14-3, 5-1 SEC) entered The Associated Press poll at No. 19, giving the Vols' their second ranking of the season. This time the Vols need to prove they belong for the long haul.

 

If they do, that should take care of all the unnecessary and premature NCAA Tournament talk surrounding the program.

 

"You've got to win at least half your games in conference play, and we've won three," Pearl said. "After four conference games, with 12 left, I just think it's too early. There are 12 teams capable of beating us. It's way too soon."

 

 

 

At most programs, the loss of a former walk-on playing limited minutes wouldn't bring much of a reaction. At Alabama, the mid-season departure of sophomore guard Justin Jonus became big news.

 

Jonus, who received a scholarship in 2005, was averaging 5.9 points and 20.9 minutes per game and started five games earlier in the season, so it's not like losing Winston Kennedy a year early to an NBA draft that never called Kennedy's name.

 

"I am disappointed in Justin's decision and certainly the timing of this decision being that it is January 23rd," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "I have expressed to Justin and his father that he still could be a player that helps this team reach the NCAA Tournament. He has told me his decision is based on the recent lack of playing time, specifically the last four games."

 

Still, it didn't help when Jonus' father, high school basketball coach Kirk Jonus, made most of the public statements surrounding the decision and came off looking like the second coming off Marv Marinovich, complaining about his son's lack of playing time and a lack of communication from the coaches.

 

The real problem is that Alabama is now down to just seven available scholarship players due to a combination of star forward Chuck Davis' season-ending knee injury and some recruiting mistakes by the coaching staff.

 

For all the Internet flames and talk-show heat directed at Jonus, Gottfried and his assistants must examine their own decisions with some painful objectivity.

 

Obviously the Crimson Tide coaches brought in some outstanding basketball players in recent years (Gerald Wallace, Rod Grizzard, Maurice Williams, the aforementioned Winston, etc.), but the Tide also signed guards Albert Weber, Glenn Miles, Ray George, forward Akini Adkins and Shawn Taylor.

 

Miles left the team as a freshman in 2004 and is now scoring 3.4 points per game for Redlands (Okla.) Community College. Weber left as a freshman last season and is now scoring 22.6 points per game for Connors State (Okla.) Junior College. George never made it to Tuscaloosa because he couldn't graduate from junior college on time.

 

Recruiting experts seemed to indicate that all along. How could Alabama invent so much time and space on a kid who probably wasn't going to make it in the first place?

 

Adkins is now playing at Florida A&M, where he's scoring 5.2 points per game, and Taylor transferred to Chipola (Fla.) Junior College, where he averages 3.4 points per game.

 

Alabama could always take the redshirt off freshman forward Yamene Coleman, but why? He can't play guard, where the Crimson Tide's depth is now down to starters Ron Steele and Brandon Hollinger, wings Jean Felix and Alonzo Gee and walk-on guard Brandon Davis, who has played only nine minutes this season.

 

 

 

Florida's two-game losing streak against Tennessee and South Carolina may be the best thing that's happened to the Gators since Nov. 17-18 when they beat Wake Forest and Syracuse in back-to-back games.

 

Sure, those losses broke the Gators school-record 17-game winning streak and knocked them out of the No. 2 spot in the national polls, but in late January those things hardly matter. There's a lot of basketball left to be played, and beating Auburn and Savannah State in consecutive games before the two-game losing streak didn't do much to prepare

Florida for the stretch run.

 

Now the Gators can get back to business after outscoring Vanderbilt 46-20 in the second half of an 81-58 victory on Saturday.

 

"We were able to push the ball up the floor more and get back to the style that we want to play," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

 

The Gators were back to the unselfish, team-first style that propelled their hot start, just in time to play at Ole Miss on Tuesday and play host to Kentucky on Sunday.

 

"With what we have been through, all the adversity, this feels good," sophomore forward Joakim Noah said. "Now we have to take what we've learned from this and take it on the road with us."

 

The next key is getting sophomore wing Corey Brewer healthy and back on the court after he suffered a sprained ankle in the first half of the Tennessee loss. Brewer struggled in the South Carolina game and then made the unselfish decision to approach Donovan on Saturday and admit he couldn't be as effective as he needed to be as a starter that day.

 

After starting all of his previous 51 games at Florida, Brewer came off the bench against Vandy and contributed three points and two steals in 17 minutes. Donovan said he is day-to-day for the Ole Miss game, but don't count Brewer out.

 

"Corey begged me to play him the second half of the Tennessee game," Donovan said. "I think after watching himself on film against South Carolina, seeing how he played, I think he probably realized 75 percent was not good enough. And as a sophomore, as a guy who has started every game since he's been here, I respect him for approaching me and making that decision."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.


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