Pearl's debut is tonight

Tennessee's basketball fans can afford to take Southern Indiana lightly. Tennessee's basketball coach cannot.

Bruce Pearl figures his debut as the Vol head man tonight against USI (7:30 tipoff at Thompson-Boling Arena) will be a good test. He should know. He coached Southern Indiana for nine years, guiding the Screaming Eagles to nine NCAA Div. II Tournament bids and one national title.

"They've averaged 25 wins over the past 13 years," he said this week. "Eight times they've been ranked No. 1 in the country over the last 12 years. They won 18 in a row last year before they lost deep in the NCAA Tournament. They will be better than some of the Division 1 teams we'll see."

But that's OK. Pearl wants to play solid opponents, not sacrificial lambs. That's why he figures tonight's exhibition opener will be beneficial.

"The good thing is, it'll expose us," he said. "It'll uncover some things that need to be uncovered from a teaching standpoint. They'll do some things, offensively and defensively, that will point out some things we need to do better. Then we'll learn them and we'll do better. If those things aren't uncovered, you can't get better at them."

Most Tennessee fans probably didn't know Southern Indiana fielded a basketball team until Pearl arrived last March with USI on his resume'. Those fans can expect to see a well-coached, fundamentally sound foe tonight.

"I think we'll be challenged," Pearl said. "They're athletic. They're deep. They win. And nobody knows what we do better than they do because Rick Curtis worked with me for nine years."

Pearl played USI once while he was head man at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He won but not without a few tense moments.

"When we played ‘em while I was at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, we did almost everything right and they struggled," he recalled. "Whatever formula I used to beat them last time, they'll adjust to that formula. We'll have to find other ways to beat them. Regardless of the outcome, where we go from there is what it's all about."

Chris Lofton is UT's top returning scorer from last year (13.2 points per game), followed by fellow guard C.J. Watson (11.9). The next-leading scorer, Andre Patterson (7.4) will miss tonight's game on a disciplinary suspension.

So, where will the Vols' points come from?

"Points have always been pretty balanced," Pearl said. "C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton are really, really good. JaJuan Smith is capable. He's not consistent but he has shown the ability to play at a high level.

"Dane (Bradshaw) is playing with more confidence than he ever has. That will be fun for the fans to see. Stanley Asumnu is playing better and with more confidence. And Major Wingate is trying to go from potential to productivity, and he will.

"The question – particularly in the cases of JaJuan, Stanley and Major – is ‘How consistent will they be?' C.J. and Chris were really good a year ago and they were really consistent. Those other four guys are capable of being really good but how quickly are they capable of becoming consistent?

Pearl hopes to get at least a partial answer to that question this evening.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories