'Small ball' is no big deal

Because Bruce Pearl's teams rely so heavily on up-tempo offense and full-court defense, it's easy to understand why he utilizes a four-guard, one-forward lineup. Quickness is more critical to that style of play than size.

Tennessee's coach insists he is not married to "small ball," however. The prospect of him putting a team on the floor with a 6-11, 6-8, 6-8 front line (a la the Florida Gators) may seem unthinkable, but Pearl says it could happen.

"Absolutely," he said. "If we could attract that kind of personnel, I'd have no problem. You've just got to scratch where it itches. You make adjustments based on your personnel."

Tennessee's lineup has been smaller than that of virtually every team it has faced this season.

Pearl's explanation: "My job is to get our best players on the floor the most minutes ... whatever combination that would mean."

This season that combination has been 6-7 Duke Crews, 6-4 Dane Bradshaw, 6-2 Chris Lofton, 6-2 JaJuan Smith and 6-2 Ramar Smith. Tennessee has a couple of 6-9 players – Wayne Chism and Ryan Childress – but they come off the bench.

Pearl says he fielded some big lineups in his first head coaching job, Div. II Southern Indiana. In subsequent stops at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Tennessee, however, the personnel dictated that he go with smaller, quicker teams.

"It'll take us some time," he said, "to balance up the roster with some more size."

Pearl isn't the only SEC coach playing small ball this season. Recent foes Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Auburn started three-guard lineups. Moreover, Ole Miss will put three guards – 6-4 Bam Doyne, 6-1 Todd Abernethy and 6-1 Clarence Sanders – on the floor against Tennessee Wednesday night in Oxford.

Why are so many teams playing small ball?

"Personnel would dictate that," Pearl said. "The second thing would be assist/turnover ratio. I think assist/turnover ratio is an important statistic."

It's certainly an important statistic for Ole Miss. The Rebels average just 11.9 turnovers per game, tying for the conference lead in that category.

"They turn the ball over the least of any team in the SEC, and yet they're fairly up-tempo," Pearl said. "Why? Because they run those three guards."

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