Pearl: 'We'll be back'

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl didn't take long to put the disappointment of a loss to Wichita State in the rear view mirror.

``Folks, get used to this,'' Pearl said of playing in the NCAA Tournament. ``We'll be back.''

Tennessee's unexpected run in the NCAA tourney ended with a loss to No. 7 seed Wichita State, but to classify the defeat as an upset loss is a stretch.

Tennessee (22-8) was a No. 2 seed, but that was generous. The Vols should have been a three or a four seed. Perhaps the label of a two-seed added some pressure. In the end, Wichita State (26-8) made more plays down the stretch and deserved more credit for winning than Tennessee did blame for losing.

So, the Tennessee team that jumped out of the gate 19-3 and No. 8 in the country finished the season 22-8, losing five of its final eight games.

But that shouldn't detract from the most enjoyable men's basketball season in over 25 years.

And, if you listen to Pearl, there's more to come. He's not happy that he won't be working this week, preparing for the Sweet 16. But he's eager to see what lies ahead.

``You can't believe how quickly I'm ready to make this transition,'' Pearl said, referring to next season. ``Next year, I'm there.''

He's there with a team that will be more talented than the 2005-06 edition. He's there with a team that should be better inside. He's there with a team that will have more depth. He's there with a team that should be bubbling with confidence.

That doesn't guarantee the Vols will be better next season.

Will they have the same chemistry? Will they be able to overcome the loss of a four-year starter at point guard? Have other teams found the blueprint on how to attack Pearl's teams? Can they win at a high level starting two or three freshmen?

Pearl is eager to find out.

Much of UT's success next season would center around center Major Wingate. A 6-10 junior, Wingate came alive during the NCAA tournament, with 15 points and six rebounds in one game and 15 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots in another.

Wingate was disconsolate after the Wichita State loss.

``I finally got him to stop crying,'' Pearl said.

How? Pearl reminded Wingate of the help he'll have next season on the front line with Wayne Chism and Duke Crews, two highly rated freshmen.

A week ago, I thought Chism and Crews would start immediately for the Vols next season with Wingate coming off the bench. Now, I'm not so sure.

Pearl could start the two freshmen along with Wingate, but what would you do with power forward Dane Bradshaw? It'll be hard to keep him out of the lineup. Yet, the 6-4 Bradshaw isn't quick enough to play the point. Maybe Bradshaw continues to play inside with Chism or Crews coming off the bench.

Chism and Crews will make UT better inside on offense and defense, where the Vols allowed nine teams to shoot at least 60 percent during the half of a game.

``We won't be as physically challenged in the future,'' Pearl said.

One thing seems more apparent now than last week: Wingate will start.

``We'll build around him a little bit,'' Pearl said.

Imagine that statement a week ago: Build around Wingate.

Wingate averaged 10.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game this season, soft numbers considering his potential and size. He blocked 32 shots, second on the team, and shot a team-best 56 percent from the field. But he led the team in turnovers (70), in part because he has poor hands.

Wingate isn't the only Vol with room for improvement.

All-SEC guard Chris Lofton, despite his 17.2 scoring average, can elevate his offensive game. He can move better without the ball and learn to score off the dribble.

``I've got to get that kid to the (foul) line,'' Pearl said after Lofton attempted just 60 free throws this season, two per game. ``I've got to get him posted up and driving to the basket. That will be the big thing for Chris next year, taking the ball to the basket.''

JaJuan Smith, who came off the bench to average 9.5 points, had a team-high 10 rebounds against Wichita State and is a streaky 3-point shooter. But he's an unreliable foul shooter (57 percent) and must learn to play under control and make better decisions.

Pearl said Smith might have been affected by not winning the SEC Sixth Man of the Year award. If so, that's a selfish attitude Smith must lose.

``JaJuan is an emotional kid,'' Pearl said. ``Sometimes that's a positive, sometimes a negative. He's a little moody.''

No matter who the point guard next season, he won't be as good as Waston was as a senior. Watson averaged 15.3 points, led the team in assists, was second in steals, hit 88 percent of his free throws, made 42 percent of his 3-pointers and showed great leadership on the court.

The point guard options: Junior Jordan Howell or freshmen signees Josh Tabb and Marques Johnson. Howell averaged 7.8 minutes and doesn't appear ready to be a 30-minute player. Tabb is solid on defense and ball handling, but he's not the shooter Watson is. Johnson is a combo guard who wants to play the point.

Tennessee could go the junior college route, but this late in the recruiting game, it's doubtful Pearl can find someone ready to be an immediate starter.

The Vols might be able to overcome the drop off at point guard with considerable improvement along the front line and more depth.

Pearl is eager to find out, starting with the preseason NIT next season.

``I'm pleased we had a good season,'' Pearl said, ``and a great start to this program.''

NOTES: Pearl was trying to join Tubby Smith (Tulsa, Georgia) and Bill Self (Illinois, Kansas) as the only coaches since 1979 to take two different teams to consecutive Sweet 16s. … Pearl is one of seven coaches to win at least 21 games in his first season at an SEC school, joining Don DeVoe (Tennessee, 1979), Tubby Smith (Georgia, 1996, Kentucky, 1998), Dave Odom (South Carolina, 2002), Eddie Fogler (Vanderbilt, 1990), Eddie Sutton (Kentucky, 1986) and Tommy Bartlett (Florida, 1967).


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