Learning the ropes

Tony Jones' role the past four weeks was a lot like the "other guy" in a tag-team wrestling match: Basically, his job was to be competitive and entertain the fans until the headliner was ready to tag in and finish the match.

Mission accomplished.

The headliner, Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl, was winning at a .667 clip (10 wins, 5 losses) when he tagged out at the start of conference play due to an eight-game SEC suspension. Tony Jones climbed through the ropes at this point and won at a .625 clip (5 wins, 3 losses). He has the Vols one game behind first-place Florida in the SEC East race, with a reasonable shot at the league title and an NCAA Tournament bid.

Jones got off to an ominous start by losing 68-65 at Arkansas and 81-75 at home to Florida. Then he rallied to win his next five outings - 67-65 vs. Vanderbilt, 59-57 at Georgia, 75-53 vs. LSU, 74-57 at Ole Miss and 69-56 at Auburn - before bowing 65-60 to Alabama on Saturday. Had Tennessee made one more play in regulation each time, overtime losses to Florida and Bama could've been averted and Jones would've finished his eight-game stint with a 7-1 record.

The Vols' associate head coach encountered a bit of bad luck at the end of his reign. He had to face Bama minus leading scorer Scotty Hopson and roughly 38 hours after his team returned to Knoxville following a late-night game at Auburn on Thursday. To his credit, Jones used neither situation as an excuse for losing to the Tide.

Ultimately, the Vol aide feels he did a good job subbing for Pearl and benefited from the experience.

"I've always been prepared to be a head coach," Jones said. "I've been doing this for 17 years, and I've worked for one of the best collegiate coaches in the business. I've learned a lot about some of the things on the periphery - dealing with the media, dealing with the officiating - but I always knew I was capable of handling a job like this."

Tennessee's players agree that Jones distinguished himself in a very difficult situation.

"He did a good job," junior wing Cameron Tatum said. "For the amount of pressure he was under, he handled it with a lot of poise. He made sure he was tough on us - just as tough as Coach Pearl was going to be - and I think we listened to him and showed him the respect, so he knew we would go out and play hard for him."

Sophomore guard Skylar McBee also gives Jones a lot of credit, along with fellow aides Steve Forbes, Jason Shay, Ken Johnson and Houston Fancher.

"I thought he did a great job," McBee said. "I thought our whole coaching staff did a great job. Coach Pearl was missed. Everybody wanted to have him there, and I know he wanted to be there, but our coaches did a great job."

Freshman Tobias Harris also gives Jones high marks for his performance the past eight games.

"He did a great job, a phenomenal job," Harris said. "Coach Jones is like a head coach. That's how we all look at him, and we all take him serious. We know what he tells us is the real stuff. He tells me sometimes 'You're not playing as well as you can play,' and I go back out there and do what I've got to do for our team.

"He got the best out of me in these eight games, just like Coach Pearl got the best out of us. He did a great job."

Now that Jones has tagged out, Vol fans are eagerly waiting to see if Pearl can make like a headliner and finish off the match with a flourish.


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