Conspiracy theory

You hear some interesting stuff on talk-radio, including the occasional conspiracy theory that almost seems plausible.

Take the one making the rounds on some of Knoxville's sports-talk shows, for instance: Now that Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl has finished serving his eight-game suspension, he's serving as whipping boy for SEC officials.

Frankly, the arguments are somewhat compelling:

Tennessee shot 411 free throws in its 15 non-conference games, an average of 27.4 foul shots per contest. With SEC officials blowing the whistles, however, the Vols have shot a mere 148 free throws in 10 league games, an average of just 14.8 per game. That ranks dead last among the 12 SEC teams by a considerable margin. LSU is 11th at 17.1 per game.

Naturally, Pearl chooses his words carefully when discussing the dramatic drop in Vol free throws since conference play began.

"I do know that in the early portion of the season we were leading the country in going to the line," he said. "Now I'd say we're probably 10th or 11th in the league in going to the foul line."

Twelfth, actually. So why are the Vols shooting 14.8 free throws per game in league play after averaging nearly twice that many in non-conference play?

"I don't know," Pearl said. "I don't know. We're not playing any differently."

Part of the free-throw disparity could be due to the fact that SEC games tend to be played at a more deliberate pace than non-conference games. A slower tempo can lead to fewer possessions and fewer foul calls. Also, the SEC operates on a "let 'em play" credo, with its officials being a little more reluctant to blow a whistle.

Still, those ideas don't explain how Arkansas is averaging 25.0 foul shots per game in SEC play. And they don't explain the fact that Tennessee's opponents are averaging 20.4 foul shots per game, nearly 6.0 per contest more than the Vols.

"We're not getting to the foul line, and they are," Pearl said. "It is a mystery but the facts are just the facts. People can hear that and think you're complaining about the officiating (but) you're not."

After losing his first two games back following the eight-game suspension, Pearl can't afford to complain about the officiating. Crossing league brass might get him suspended for the rest of the season. The Vol coach is on thin ice with the SEC office and he knows it. So he leaves the conspiracy theories to the talk-radio folks and speaks of the free-throw disparity only in the vaguest of terms.

"That's an issue that we've got to address," he said, "and got to fix."

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