Bruce Pearl

Bruce Pearl might be doing the best first-year coaching job in the history of Tennessee athletics.

Pearl inherited a 14-17 team that lost two of its best players and has turned it into an exciting, overachieving SEC championship contender. The Vols are 16-3, 7-1 in the SEC. They are well on their way to a 20-win season, heck, a 22- or 24-win season. And no SEC team has a better league record.

The individual improvement is just as astonishing as the team improvement.

C.J. Watson is averaging 15.7 points after averaging 11.9 last year, and he's shooting a career-best 48 percent from the field while ranking among the SEC leaders in steals and assists.

Chris Lofton is averaging 15.7 points after averaging 13.2 last year, and he ranks among the SEC leaders in 3-point shooting and steals.

Dane Bradshaw is averaging 7.4 points and 6.5 rebounds after averaging 3.0 and 2.3 last year. Plus, he leads the SEC in assist-turnover ratio.

Major Wingate has gone from a 5.0 average to 11.2 while Stanley Asumnu has upped his scoring from 2.4 to 9.4 and JuJuan Smith has gone from 1.9 to 9.2.

Those six are combing to average 68.6 points, 31.2 more per game than last.

I don't think you can find a Tennessee coach who has done a more brilliant first-year job than Pearl. It's not just team and player improvement, it's fan interest. The Vols are averaging 17,070 in home attendance—almost 5,000 more per game than last year.

Of course, the season isn't over.

Pearl has more games to win, more mountains to climb, more people to put in the stands, more opposing coaches to aggravate.

It will be intriguing to see how the Vols finish with upcoming road games against Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Vanderbilt.

And it will be intriguing to see how close he comes to doing what Don DeVoe did his first year as UT's basketball coach more than 25 years ago.

DeVoe did something his first season at UT that had not been done since 1920 – he beat Kentucky three times. The third win was for the SEC Tournament championship. The Vols have beaten Kentucky only twice in the same season once since then – 1999.

DeVoe might come closest to matching Pearl for first-year wizardry at UT.

DeVoe inherited an 11-16 team that was 6-12 in the SEC. He transformed it into a 21-12 team that went 12-6 in league play, winning its last six regular-season games in conference play to finish second in the SEC, and made the NCAA Tournament.

It's doubtful Pearl can generate a 10-game improvement, and he might have trouble doubling the SEC win total of a year ago under Buzz Peterson (UT was 6-10).

That helps put in perspective what a terrific job DeVoe did his first year.

DeVoe said he sees similarities in his debut season at Tennessee and Pearl's.

``When I arrived in '78,'' DeVoe said, ``Tennessee was coming off a losing season. There were quite a few players a lot of people felt would not be able to adjust and win at the SEC level, and I see that with this year's team.''

While Pearl lost two of UT's top four scorers, he returned two top-flight guards. DeVoe inherited an All-SEC forward in Reggie Johnson, who averaged more than 20 points per game, a 19-point scorer in Terry Crosby, center Chuck Threeths and guard Bert Bertlekamp, who averaged 11.4 points in 1977-78 but didn't start under DeVoe.

DeVoe said he was convinced early that Pearl would do a bang-up job.

``When I watched them practice in November, I thought they were really trying to please coach Pearl and playing quite hard,'' DeVoe said. ``I think he had their attention. I liked what he was doing in regards to strategy. I thought there was that strong connection you like to see between a coach and his team early in the fall. When you have that going early, it's a real good sign.''

Tennessee has attracted four crowds in excess of 20,000 and is averaging more than 17,000 for the first time in 16 years. Attendance dipped to 12,226 last year with a turnstile count of about 8,000 per game.

``I always envisioned Tennessee basketball being at this level,'' DeVoe said. ``When Thompson-Boling Arena was built, I felt very comfortable it's exactly what this university needed.

``This is a great, great college sports area. It doesn't surprise me that now that the team is competing for a championship, the fans and students are there supporting. This is exactly how I envisioned Tennessee basketball when we built the arena in the mid-‘80s.

``Tennessee basketball was always, in my opinion, a real community and state effort. When we had teams that played hard and were successful, we had great support, and the only two years I coached in Thompson-Boling Arena, we were 2 and 3 in the nation, respectively, in basketball attendance (20,823 then 19,313).

``The nucleus has always been there for this community to support Thompson-Boling Arena and the basketball team, but the team has to always be competing for the SEC Championship for the arena to be filled.''

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