Pearl deals with fatigue factor

For the first time in 14 years as a head coach, one of Bruce Pearl's teams has shown fatigue down the stretch.

There's a reason. Pearl's first 13 teams had nine players average double digits in minutes played. Because of Pearl's lack of depth at Tennessee, the Vols have only seven players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, with six averaging more than 24 minutes per game and the seventh 19.

Sensing his team was tiring, Pearl altered his practice schedule.

``We haven't had a contact practice in a month,'' Pearl said. ``The last one was after our loss to LSU (Jan. 14).''

That's almost two months.

Pearl said contact practices help a team gain defensive and rebounding toughness.

``We've been unable to do that because we can't afford to lose any guys,'' Pearl said.

The first signs of fatigue came in the final five minutes of a home loss to Arkansas. The Vols then allowed Kentucky to shoot 79 percent in the second half of another home defeat.

In the regular season finale, Vanderbilt led by 16 points before the Vols showed a burst of energy to rally for a nine-point victory.

Tennessee (21-6, 12-4 SEC) takes a No. 1 East seed and a first-round bye into the SEC Tournament. The Vols don't play until Friday, which, Pearl said, is ``crucial'' as far as rest and making a run.

Since league expansion in 1992, only one team – Arkansas in 2000 – has won the tournament after playing on Thursday night. Three games in three days is grueling enough, much less four games in four days.

``Our challenge is simple,'' Pearl said of the league tournament. ``We don't have a deep roster and we have an exhausting style of play.''

It's so exhausting, it affects the other team. The game after playing Tennessee, SEC opponents are 3-12. The wins: LSU over Mississippi State, Arkansas over Mississippi State and Georgia over South Carolina.

Pearl praised the development of backup point guard Jordan Howell, a good shooter (42.9 percent on 3s) who has improved his ball-handling and defense. Howell's emergence has allowed C.J. Watson to reduce his minutes per game by three from last year and allowed Dane Bradshaw to play power forward (rather than backup point).

Pearl also likes the way Andre Patterson has stepped up over the last six weeks, turning in three double-doubles and scoring 15 points in three consecutive games. Still, Pearl thinks the 6-7 Patterson could be even better than his 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds.

``If Andre could play like Dennis Rodman with that energy every night, he'd be a more productive player,'' Pearl said. ``He's one of those guys I wish I had another year with because there's more there.''

Pearl said 6-10 post Major Wingate has been a consistent scorer (10.3 points) and defender this season.

``He needs to continue to do those things and step up his rebounding if we're going to make any noise in the postseason,'' Pearl said.

UT's first game will be Friday at 1 p.m. against the winner of South Carolina and Mississippi State. If UT advances it will likely play Kentucky or Alabama.

Pearl has given no thought to tanking the SEC tournament so his players will be better rested for the NCAA Tournament.

``Bring it every night,'' Pearl said of his philosophy.

``This weekend we'll try to play for a championship.''

RPI SHOULD RATE NO. 3 SEED

Tennessee is ranked No. 14 (AP) and 15 (coaches' poll) but the Vols are No. 6 in the latest RPI with a No. 2 strength of schedule, behind only Duke.

That's why UT should not slip below a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Vols have played three SEC teams that won at least 20 games and two others than won at least 17. And six SEC teams are among the top 50 in RPI: No. 6 UT, No. 9 LSU, No. 29 Kentucky, No. 31 Florida, No. 45 Alabama and No. 50 Arkansas. Each of those six is expected to make the NCAA Tournament.

Six SEC teams have a strength of schedule in the top 20: No. 2 UT, No. 7 Alabama, No. 14 Auburn, No. 15 LSU, No. 18 South Carolina and No. 19 Kentucky. Florida's is 99th, Arkansas' 90th.

Tennessee's non-SEC schedule included Memphis (No. 5 RPI), Texas (10), Murray State (65), South Alabama (78), Oklahoma State (90), Lipscomb (140) and Louisiana-Lafayette (141). None of the opponents had an RPI below 250.

SUMMITT MAKES CASE FOR NO. 1 SEED

Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt said her team deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after winning the SEC Tournament title over LSU.

Tennessee is 28-4 against the nation's toughest schedule. The Lady Vols were No. 2 in a week-old RPI (behind North Carolina) with a 13-2 record against top 25 teams.

North Carolina is a cinch to be a No. 1 seed. Duke, Maryland, Ohio State and LSU are the other prime candidates for a No. 1 seed. UT split with LSU (27-3), the regular-season SEC champion.

33,000 WATCH UT MEN, WOMEN

Tennessee has indeed become a basketball town.

The Vols averaged a shade under 18,000 in attendance this season – the highest since the second year of Thompson-Boling Arena – while the Lady Vols led the nation in women's attendance at 15,364.

That's a combined average of over 33,300 – believed to be the highest in the nation. The average for each game: 16,659.

The men's average ranks second in the SEC and in the top six nationally.

NOTES: Pearl said he would like to see the NCAA Tournament expand by one round, meaning 128 teams rather than 64 (or 65) because ``so many good teams are left off the dance card.'' . … Pearl said the SEC has better point guards than any other conference. ``I guarantee you could take the top three or four point guards in the SEC and put them against anybody in any league.'' … Pearl said he believes the SEC deserves to have six teams make the Big Dance.


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