Year 1, Part 2

Thanks to a shocking upset win at Texas, an SEC East title, a sweep of eventual national champ Florida, a trip to the NCAA Tournament and a 22-8 record, last season didn't seem much like Year 1 of the Bruce Pearl era at Tennessee.

The growing pains that normally accompany a new coaching regime weren't evident in 2005-06. They might be in 2006-07, however. Pearl's first edition was a fairly veteran unit. The Vols relied heavily on a senior point guard (C.J. Watson), two senior forwards (Andre Patterson, Stanley Asumnu), a junior center (Major Wingate) and a junior forward (Dane Bradshaw).

Of that group, only Bradshaw returns for 2006-07. He's the lone senior on a team that features one junior starter (Chris Lofton), two junior reserves (JaJuan Smith, Jordan Howell), one sophomore with limited college experience (Ryan Childress), one sophomore with no college experience (Tony Passley) and five heralded but unproven freshmen.

When he took the UT job in March of 2005, Pearl looked at the veteran makeup of the Vol roster and surmised that Year 2 might be more of a rebuilding season than Year 1. Now that Year 2 has arrived he's reminding folks of that comment he made 19 months ago.

"As I said then, I felt like we were going to have two first years," Pearl said this week. "Perhaps this one is going to look more like a traditional first year than any other."

The absence of Watson, a four-year starter and last year's assist leader, is huge. The departure of Patterson has cost the Vols their top rebounder. The dismissal of Wingate leaves them without their best post defender and highest percentage shooter of 2005-06.

"Our challenges this year: We lose 50 percent of our scoring, we lose our leading rebounder, we lose our leading field goal percentage shooter and our leading assist man," Pearl said. "Six out of the 11 players that will be on this roster as scholarship players will be playing in their first college basketball game."

Although the 2006-07 roster is clearly more athletic and talented than its predecessor, the 2005-06 roster had much more experience, and that experience proved crucial in close games.

"It was reflected specifically on the road," Pearl noted. "We were 6-2 on the road in conference play and played well on the road at Texas, at Memphis and neutral sites, so that experience really served us well last season."

Another factor that could make Year 2 more difficult than Year 1 is the schedule. Tennessee faces four teams that were in the NCAA Elite Eight last March. Although the SEC put two teams in last spring's Final Four – Florida and LSU – Pearl thinks the league may be even tougher this season.

"As you look at the SEC, it's probably never been positioned as strongly as it is right now," he said. "I look at three teams as being Final Four-caliber teams. I think that Florida certainly is, and I feel like Alabama and LSU can both make arguments to get to the Final Four.

"And I think Kentucky is going to be much improved, for sure. Everybody else will be competing for those next couple of spots that are so very, very cherished."

Despite Tennessee's youth, the outlook may not be as bleak as the head coach tends to represent it. For instance, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook tabs the Vols No. 23 nationally in its preseason rankings. Pearl isn't sure his team has enough experience to warrant such a lofty perch.

"But we are ready to go," he said. "The attitude of the team is extremely positive."

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