Hoops future's bright

Tennessee's basketball future is even brighter than that orange blazer head coach Bruce Pearl wore against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Now THAT'S bright.

Pearl, of course, is the reason. Assuming the Vol post one year ago, he didn't complain about trying to play an up-tempo game with players he inherited from Buzz Peterson's deliberate system. He didn't complain about Tennessee's lack of size. Or strength. Or athleticism. Or depth.

Instead, Pearl took what he had and made the best of it. The "best" proved to be pretty darned good – a 22-8 record, an SEC East title, a top-25 ranking and a first-round win in the NCAA Tournament.

Imagine what he'll do in the years to come … with newcomers tailored to his style of play and with time to address UT's shortcoming on the recruiting trail.

Following the Vols' second-round ouster from the NCAA Tournament Pearl said "We'll be back." That wasn't a prediction. It was a promise.

Bank on it. He took a team with NIT talent to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He and his staff deserve a lot of credit. So do his players.

"I'm very, very proud of these young men," Pearl said following the loss to Wichita State. "I'd be happier if we'd won but I couldn't be prouder of them. We had a whole state of Tennessee that got through the winter on the backs of these kids."

Pearl may never have a team that's tougher mentally than the 2005-06 Vols but he may never have a team that's weaker physically, either.

"It's going to take me a couple of years but we're not going to find ourselves so physically challenged again," Pearl said. "It's going to take a couple of years in the weight room, conditioning and (fixing) some things we need to do defensively."

Tennessee's lack of size and strength on the inside was a problem all season long. The Vols' rebound margin was worst in the SEC and their interior defense wasn't much better. If they played behind the post, taller foes simply shot over them. If they tried to front the post, rival guards just lobbed the ball over them. And, due to the lack of height, playing zone was out of the question.

Pearl knew how to fix the problem but lacked the manpower. He touched on this dilemma during the regular season:

"Give me three or four more scholarship players. Let me practice a couple of times a week and be able to physically do the kind of things you have to do to drill defense. I've got to show ‘em and I've got to teach ‘em but I can't drill it into ‘em like I would if I had a full complement of scholarship players and we were able to do the kind of drill work that is required."

With a magic wand, Pearl could've made the Vols grow taller. With better depth, he could've made them more fundamentally sound by working them harder in practice. Because he had neither, he was left to watch as Tennessee surrendered far too many layups and putbacks.

Since quality opponents were able to shred Tennessee's defense for easy baskets, the Vol offense was placed in a position of having to score on nearly every possession just to keep pace. The Big Orange eventually wilted under that strain. In its two NCAA Tournament games Tennessee sank just 15 of 50 shots (30 percent) from 3-point range. The Vols were 5 of 21 (23.8 percent) vs. Winthrop and 10 of 29 (34.5 percent) vs. Wichita State.

"It's hard to put so much pressure on your offense when you can't keep people off the backboard," Pearl said. "But this team showed a lot of heart and a lot of character."

Indeed. The Vols won 22 games with heart and character. One can only imagine how many games they'll win in the years to come with size, strength, athleticism and depth.

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