Pearl's at a loss

The fact that fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth upset third-seeded Wake Forest on the Deacons' home floor in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament didn't surprise Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.

The fact the Rams prevailed by a resounding 90-69 score did.

"I knew they were good and I knew they came from a really good league, so that wasn't a huge upset," said Pearl, whose Vols face VCU Wednesday at 7 in the NIT semis at Madison Square Garden. "Maybe the margin was."

Although considered a mid-major program, the Rams are similar to one of the SEC's top programs.

"They do a lot of great things with ball screens," Pearl said. "They do some of the stuff Florida does, and they do it really, really well. It's a veteran team, an experienced team. It's another step up. Every time we've stepped on the floor it's been against a little better team, and this one's probably more than a little better."

Clearly, Pearl knows a lot about the Rams. In fact, he may know more about them than he does about his own team. Simply put, the 2010 Vols have their coach totally perplexed.

"Nothing would surprise me with this group at this point," he said with a laugh, "just because they are new."

With senior Melvin Goins coming back from an injury-induced one-week layoff and freshman Trae Golden having just one start under his belt, Tennessee's point-guard situation is a little shaky. That's a concern since Virginia Commonwealth's top player is senior point guard Joey Rodriguez. He averaged 12.9 points and 5.8 assists last season and is averaging 18.3 points and 10.3 assists per game this season.

"Rodriguez, the point guard, is averaging a double-double," Pearl said. "He's responsible for about half of their points - both making baskets and the stuff he does (assisting) in the fast break."

Another key player for VCU is 6-6, 225-pound junior Bradford Burgess. He's coming off a 25-point outing vs. Wake Forest.

"Burgess is a guy that plays 3 (small forward) and 4 (power forward), and is a very tough cover," Pearl said. "He's a pick-and-pop 4 man when he plays there and a big 3 that they'll post up."

Like Tennessee, Virginia Commonwealth is 3-0. The Rams beat UNC Greensboro 101-86 and Winthrop 67-54 prior to hammering Wake Forest. They project to be a stern test for the Vols Wednesday evening.

"It's a team that's got depth. It's got athleticism," Pearl said. "It's got some high-major transfers on the inside. It's a good team - a team that would finish in the middle of the SEC."

Tennessee will be making its second trip to New York under Pearl. His 2006-07 team struggled in the Big Apple, falling 56-44 to Butler and 101-87 to North Carolina.

"A few years ago when we went there we did not play good basketball - losing to Butler and North Carolina," Pearl conceded. "We went on to have a good year but we did not represent well (in New York). We're going to have to play better than we've been practicing to represent well."

Asked what he can do to make sure his players aren't awed by historic Madison Square Garden, Pearl shook his head.

"I hope they're awed," he said. "If I walk into Madison Square Garden and I'm not awed, something's wrong. They'd better be awed ... then just settle down and play basketball.

"They're not going to be impressed by the size or the locker rooms or the elevators. It's not a huge place. It's just a very, very special place."

Except for an 82-62 blowout of Chattanooga in the regular-season opener, Tennessee has not played well this season. Pearl brushed off the slow start, however, by noting that he isn't looking to peak in November. Still, he wants his team to make a good showing before the media horde that will be attending the NIT semifinals.

"We want to play well but we've got no shot at peaking," he said with a laugh. "We have NO CHANCE to peak at this point. We've got a long way to go, just because we're trying to learn new things and learn to play with each other."

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