Hoop Vols have identity

A year ago, Tennessee basketball had virtually no identity but it had a great opportunity for immediate playing time. Twelve months later, Vol hoops has a much greater identity but a much smaller opportunity for playing time.

As a result, head coach Bruce Pearl hints that signing prep talent in 2006-07 could be tougher than it was in 2005-06.

All 12 Southeastern Conference basketball coaches participated in a media teleconference earlier today. Pearl, who guided the Vols to a 22-8 record, an SEC East title and an NCAA Tournament bid last winter, was asked if his program's upgraded identity is making it easier to recruit.

Surprisingly, the second-year Vol coach wasn't ready to concede that it has.

"I don't think it's going to have that much effect on recruiting," he said. "A lot of it has to do with cycles and opportunities. Except for (spring signee) Ramar Smith, the players we signed all came in last year before we'd coached a game. They saw an opportunity."

Still, the Vols had more than an opportunity for immediate playing time in their favor as they reeled in a top-five signing class. Pearl conceded as much.

"I had a prior relationship with (Indianapolis native) Marques Johnson for several years while I was at Southern Indiana," he said. "Duke Crews is a great fan of college basketball, and witnessed what we did in Milwaukee. He was undersized and overlooked for many, many years in high school, so there was a parallel in my career and his career."

The successes of 2005-06 have given the long downtrodden Vols a powerful new identity. Playing in a league that produced two Final Four teams – national champ Florida and LSU – can only help to enhance that identity.

"We had the largest increase in ticket sales and we ranked fifth nationally in attendance," Pearl noted. "There's no question that being in the SEC with Florida and LSU helps with our identity."

Still, he isn't willing to admit that UT's newfound identity will make the recruiting trail any smoother.

"Tennessee has an identity," he said. "But, as far as recruiting is concerned, I don't know if that will be that much of a factor."

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