Jones has Vols on rise

When Tennessee went 0-2 in Tony Jones' first two games filling in for suspended head coach Bruce Pearl, Vol fans were a little unsettled. Pearl was not. He was confident his right-hand man would get the Big Orange Express back on track.

That confidence proved to be well placed. Jones has gone 4-0 since the 0-2 start and has the Vols back in contention for the SEC East title.

"He's done a great job," Pearl said. "He did a really good job in the losses, too. The staff has been working well together. The kids have been responding. We do things as a team, and our depth has served us well - depth in the coaching box and depth on the court."

Jones and Pearl go back 10 years, dating to the 2001-02 season at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jason Shay also is in Year 10 with Pearl and fellow aide Steve Forbes is in Year 5. Director of Basketball Operations Ken Johnson has been with Pearl 12 years. This familiarity has helped Tennessee go 4-2 during the head man's suspension.

"We've been together a long time," Pearl noted. "This is what I anticipated. No man rises to meet low expectations. This (winning record) would be my expectation for our team. But I'm very proud of 'em and very pleased."

Although Jones had been a head coach at the AAU level, he had never been in charge of a college team until the Vols opened SEC play at Arkansas on Jan. 8. Tennessee fell 68-65 that day, then dropped an 81-75 overtime decision to visiting Florida on Jan. 11. Naturally, some fans blamed the 0-2 start on Jones' inexperience. Pearl didn't.

"Please don't focus on the last two weeks," the head man said. "Just because he's winning doesn't make him a better coach. He did a really good job in those two losses. And he'll do a good job this week (at Auburn on Thursday and vs. Alabama on Saturday), regardless of the outcome."

Jones may have been a quality coach before but his confidence and his profile have increased considerably during his time filling in as the bench coach on SEC game days. That's a real positive.

"The world does need to know who he is and what he is," Pearl said. "Tony's got real good head-coaching strengths - his experience, his poise, his presence. He knows, like I do, how to utilize his staff and utilize assistants. When Tony becomes a head coach, he'll put together a great staff, like I have put together a great staff, and he'll use that staff well to help him be successful."

Given his reputation as a recruiter and the growing evidence of his skills as a strategist, Tony Jones is sure to field some attractive head-coaching offers at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season.

After noting that "There's not an associate head coach more respected than Tony Jones," Pearl added: "I've always said that Tony's in position to be a head coach....

"There are some folks that passed on Tony (in previous years) that shouldn't have passed on him. I'm hoping this does give him an opportunity to be a head coach and open up some eyes ... if eyes needed to be opened."

AS THE ANKLE TURNS: Leading scorer Scotty Hopson (16.5 points per game) suffered what trainer Chad Newman described as an "acute" ankle sprain during Tuesday's practice that clouds his availability for Thursday night's game at Auburn. Tobias Harris, who injured his ankle Saturday at Ole Miss, hasn't practiced since but reportedly is making good progress. If Hopson can't play vs. Auburn, his starting spot likely will be filled by either senior Josh Bone or sophomore Skylar McBee. Freshman Jordan McRae, who missed the past three games for disciplinary reasons, could see some backup action on the perimeter if his suspension is lifted in time for Thursday's game.

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