Who but Bruce Pearl saw that 6-4 Dane Bradshaw could play power forward in the SEC?
Who but Bruce Pearl could have turned Ramar Smith from a scoring guard to a consummate point guard?
Who but Bruce Pearl could get so much mileage out of Ryan Childress?
Pearl realizes the importance of developing players more than most SEC coaches. That's because he was forced to do it at Division II Southern Indiana and at Milwaukee-Wisconsin, where you typically get the second-tier players after Wisconsin and Marquette get the pick of the litter.
Asked the area his team has improved the most since the season opener, Pearl had a quite response: ``Coachability.''
Translation: Some of the young guys are listening more.
And if a player is coachable, willing to listen and learn, Pearl believes he can tap the players' potential.
``Every player has improved,'' Pearl said of this year's team, which has exceeded expectations by posting a 13-2 record headed into Wednesday night's SEC road opener at Vanderbilt.
``That's my job. I can't control wins and losses. There's too much competition out there.''
But he can control player improvement. He can control it by demanding more, by practice habits, by teaching and defining roles, by individual work.
``When you see these guys improving, then you're doing some of the right things,'' Pearl said.
Last year, C.J. Watson developed into one of the SEC's premier point guards as he increased his scoring average and assists. Wingate, although inconsistent, was solid as a defender and almost doubled his scoring average. Andre Patterson became a reliable forward.
Chris Lofton saw his average jump from 13.2 points per game to 17.2. This year, Lofton leads the SEC at 22.2 per game, about 3 more than the runner-up, while shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range and over 50 percent from the field overall – a remarkable stat for a guard.
JaJuan Smith, a former walk-on, went from 1.9 points per game under Buzz Peterson to 9.5 points in Pearl's first year to garner consideration for SEC Sixth Man of the Year. Smith is averaging 15.2 points this season, 10th in the SEC. His field goal shooting has gone from 40 to 45 percent and his free throw shooting from 56.9 percent to 75.4 percent.
Bradshaw, a lost soul as a point guard under Peterson, became the heart and soul of the team last year as a heady, gutsy undersized power forward. He went from 3.0 points to 7.1 points last year. He averaged 5.4 rebounds and recorded 56 steals. He's still a liability at the foul line – 52.3 percent this year, 56.8 for his career – but he's a valuable leader who makes clutch plays.
Sophomore forward Ryan Childress has gone from 1.2 points to 6.1 points.
And the improvement of this year's freshman players has been evident.
Through 11 games, Ramar Smith had 24 assists and 33 turnovers and averaged 5.5 points. In the last four games, he's had 22 assists and six turnovers while scoring 13.3 points per game.
Duke Crews has scored in double figures in four of the last five games and his 10.8 scoring average is second in the SEC among freshmen.
Pearl has helped 14 players reach the NBA, including Kevin Gamble, Brad Lohaus and B.J. Armstrong – all from Iowa.
``I know I made a difference in their lives,'' Pearl said, proudly.
Pearl's philosophy is different from many others. He doesn't just work on a player's weakness. He works to strengthen his strengths, so that at crunch time, the player will have a go-to move he could count on with confidence.
Pearl's ability to get the most ability out of his players is one reason he's won at least 20 games in 13 of his 14 years as a head coach.
It's one reason he's guided the young, undersized Vols to nine straight wins and a top 20 ranking.
And it's one reason he'll have Tennessee back in the NCAA Tournament again and again and again.