Pearl era opens tonight

A basketball season is like a birthday present. You don't know what you've got until you open it.

That's especially true for first-year Tennessee head man Bruce Pearl, who has never seen the players he inherited from predecessor Buzz Peterson or the two freshmen in a real game. Pearl should know a lot more about his team after the season officially opens tonight against East Tennessee State. Tip-off is set for 7:30 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Exhibition victories against Southern Indiana (86-78) and Carson-Newman (106-73) proved only that Tennessee is good enough to beat Div. II competition. How the Vols measure up against Div. I opponents remains to be seen.

Personally, I think Tennessee will win 15 games this year – five on talent, five on coaching and five on hustle.

Point 1: Talent. Although the Vol backcourt of Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson might be the SEC's finest, I think Tennessee will enjoy a talent advantage against only five foes this winter – Louisiana Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, Appalachian State, Alabama A&M and Lipscomb.

Point 2: Coaching. I'm extremely impressed with Pearl. He knows the game and, more importantly, he knows how to teach it. He can coach and he can motivate. He's driven, and so are his assistants. As a result, the 2005-06 Vols appear to be more fundamentally sound than in the past. They box out better, they move the ball better, they play better defense. Bruce Pearl is shrewd. He'll out-coach at least five opponents this year.

That brings us to Point 3: Hustle. Like many observers, I was disturbed by the lack of effort at times last season. Winning every time you take the floor isn't possible, but hustling every time you take the floor is. Pearl makes the Vols go all-out in practice, and that carries over into the games. Moreover, Tennessee's players like Pearl and like his schemes. They've "bought into" his system. They'll play their butts off for him. That kind of effort will win five more games.

I predict Tennessee will go 8-3 against its non-conference foes – losing to Texas, Oklahoma State and Memphis. I believe the Vols will go 7-9 in SEC play. That would put them at 15-12. As noted earlier, the 15 wins break down to five on talent, five on coaching and five on hustle.

If Pearl wins more than 15, he should be national coach of the year.

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