Thin the bench?

A lot of basketball coaches "thin the bench" by playing fewer reserves at tournament time, so one reporter jokingly asked Tennessee's Bruce Pearl if he planned to do that in this weekend's SEC Tournament. Pearl laughed aloud.

The Vol coach basically has played seven guys all season – Chris Lofton, C.J. Watson, Major Wingate, Andre Patterson, Dane Bradshaw, JaJuan Smith and Stanley Asumnu. Jordan Howell makes a token appearance each game, so Watson won't have to play 40 minutes at the point.

Even with a first-round bye, Tennessee must win three games in three days – starting with South Carolina today at 1 p.m. EST – to claim the SEC title. That's asking a lot of a team with virtually no depth. Right, Coach?

"With the exception of Florida, nobody else is exceptionally deep, either," Pearl said. "LSU's not deep, with the injury (Tyrus Thomas). Arkansas is playing seven or eight. Florida is the deepest team in the tournament."

In addition to being the thinnest team in the tournament, Tennessee is the team that relies most on energy – clearly a dangerous combination. That's why the Vols were running on fumes the last three weeks. That's why they lost three of their last five regular-season games. That's why they will be hard-pressed to win three games in three days this weekend at Nashville. The good news: UT's hectic tempo wears down opponents, too.

"The league is 3-12 after the Tennessee game; that speaks volumes for the pace of our game," Pearl noted. "By the same token, it's going to be hard for us to play back to back to back. The only solace you have is that it's going to be hard on everybody."

Fearing an injury that might decimate his team, Pearl reduced the length and intensity of his practices throughout February. He finally held a full-scale workout on Tuesday of this week.

"It was the first contact practice we've had in over a month," he said. "The best part about it is that we got through it and nobody got hurt."

While UT's numbers will be small on the floor, they should be great in the stands this weekend. Pearl expects a huge turnout of orange-clad Vol fans at the Gaylord Entertainment Center when the Vols play South Carolina.

"It'll be great," he said. "And I think if we could stay for the weekend it'll get better every session as more tickets become available.


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