IS PEARL COURTING CONTROVERSY?

He's just begun his second week on the job, and UT head basketball coach Bruce Pearl is already setting himself up to be second guessed by a Big Orange fan base that has to feel snake bit and gun shy, following a long series of short lived hardwood eras on the Hill.

The brewing controversy surrounds Tennessee's pursuit of high caliber, midstate, basketball prospects Tyler Smith and Jamont Gordon. Pearl had his much anticipated close-up and personal with Smith of Pulaski, Tenn., on Wednesday evening. By all accounts the meeting, which also included UT recruiting coordinator and associate head coach Tony Jones, Tyler's father Billy Smith and Giles Co. head coach Billy Holt, ‘went well', but Pearl still came away without a commitment from Smith to honor the scholarship he signed last November.

Meanwhile, Gordon, who transferred to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia from Nashville East High School for his senior season, will not make his scheduled official visit to Tennessee this weekend as originally planned. Instead, he's expected to take an official visit to Mississippi State. The change was suggested by UT's staff in order to allow Gordon more time to prepare for qualifying tests he's set to take at the basketball finishing school and prominent prep power, also attended by former Vol and Nashville native Ron Slay.

While grades aren't a problem with Smith, there is a major sticking point that these prime-time prospects have in common. They are both close to UT interim assistant coach Chuck Benson, a holdover from Buzz Peterson's staff who was the lead recruiter for Smith, but wasn't a part of the confab. Pearl hasn't indicated he intends to retain Benson, and appears to be favoring a coaching veteran for the position.

Pearl appears to be banking on his salesmanship and proven track record to sway Smith which may in turn be a tipping point for Gordon. If Pearl can't convince Smith to come to Tennessee without Benson being on staff he could decide to keep the assistant. That's assuming Benson would be open to remaining under less than the best of circumstances.

If Gordon doesn't qualify, Smith would be the only prospect at stake and Pearl may feel he can make that up next year with a proven staff of recruiters. However, that's a big risk and if UT doesn't retain Smith it would be a severe blow to the Vols chances of making a quick recovery under Pearl. Besides, how bad an assistant could Benson be if convinced like prospects like Smith and Gordon to stay home and play for Tennessee? After all, Smith's signing ended what had essentially been a six-year, in-state drought for the basket Vols.

Tennessee could probably better afford to lose Smith's on-court contributions, considerable as they may be, than do without his potential impact on other high value in-state targets. Remember how after losing Nashville's Ron Mercer, UT's Kevin O'Neil landed Chattanooga's C.J. Black and started a flow of in-state players like Charles Hathaway, Brandon Wharton, Tony Harris, Vince Yarbrough, Marcus Haislip and Slay to Knoxville?

Haislip is the last national top 50 basketball prospect from the Volunteer State to sign with Tennessee. If neither Smith or Gordon comes to UT, the Vols will only have two in-state scholarship players on the entire roster next season — junior guard Dane Bradshaw of Memphis and freshman signee Matthew Dotson of Centerville.

Unlike in football, there is enough quality in-state roundball talent to sustain UT as a Top 20 power, provided the Vols get their fair share of such prospects. It may well be Pearl is looking further down the road and realizes most of the top players will be produced in Memphis, and by bringing an assistant on board with a proven background of success and significant contacts in the Bluff City, he is better positioning the Vols to be a viable player in that valuable market.

Pearl is also establishing a tone of strong leadership while sending a message that says he believes in the program he's building, the school he's representing and the opportunity he's offering. He's saying: I've never had a losing a season and I don't plan to start next season. If a prospect can't buy into the system, he would be better served to go somewhere else and Tennessee would be wise to look somewhere else.

Ultimately, you can't compromise the foundation of your basketball program and retain its architectural integrity.


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