Pearl should be Coach of Year ... again

You can make a case for Tennessee's Chris Lofton being named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. You can make a case for Ramar Smith being named SEC Freshman of the Year. But you can make a stronger case for Bruce Pearl being named SEC Coach of the Year.

Pearl was National Coach of the Year last year for guiding the Vols to 22 wins, the SEC East Division championship and a program-best No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But he has done a better job this year.

Tennessee won 22 games this season – one more than during the regular-season last year – against a tougher schedule than the year before, a schedule ranked No. 4 in the nation.

Pearl won those 22 games despite losing a four-year starter at point guard – C.J. Watson – senior Major Wingate, a starting center and defensive stopper who was dismissed for substance abuse.

Pearl won those 22 games while starting two true freshman – one at center and one at point guard -- and having four true freshman in his nine-man rotation.

Pearl won 22 games despite a subpar year from power forward/point guard Dane Bradshaw, who was mired in a 7-for-55 shooting slump during the heart of the SEC season. Bradshaw, who was better in 2005-06, is the lone senior on the team.

Pearl won 22 games despite losing his best player for four full games because of an ankle injury, an injury that rendered Chris Lofton ineffective in two other games. That's six of 18 SEC games in which the Vols' best player was a non-factor.

Pearl won 22 games against a schedule that included a game at No. 1 Ohio State, a game against No. 5 Memphis, a game against Oklahoma State (which began the season 18-3) and two games against defending national champion Florida.

And Pearl won 22 games even though SEC coaches had a year to prepare for Tennessee's press, which clearly caught teams off guard a year ago.

Pearl was more judicial with his press this year. He used it in spurts. He fired it at LSU to generate 20 turnovers in a three-point win. He hurled it at Arkansas in the second half to score some easy baskets and record the team's first SEC road win.

Only Florida had a better SEC record than Tennessee. And for the second year in a row, the Vols finished ahead of Kentucky in the East standings.

That's more than enough to merit Pearl being voted the league's Coach of the Year.

Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss' first-year coach, got the nod in the Associated Press poll in a 5-4 vote over Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings. Pearl got one of the 12 votes.

Kennedy did a nice job at Ole Miss, going 8-8 in league play after a last-place 4-12 mark a year ago. But Kennedy did it with more veterans than the Vols and in a watered-down division.

The West didn't have one team with a winning conference record. The East didn't have one team with a losing record against the West. The West didn't have one team with a winning record against the East. The East went 24-12 against the West and will have four teams in the NCAA Tournament. The West might not have anyone dancing during the Big Dance.

Put it this way, if Ole Miss had been in the East, the Rebels would have been no better than 6-10 in the SEC. Do you think Kennedy would be SEC Coach of the Year with a 6-10 conference record?

Stallings did a fine job to finish 10-6 in the SEC, tied with Tennessee for second in the East. But Stallings had a more experienced team than Pearl, lost to Pearl by 27 points in Knoxville, and lost to Furman, Wake Forest and Appalachian State.

Stallings also didn't have the hurdle of losing his best player for, in essence, six games. What do you think Vanderbilt's record would have been had Derrick Byars missed four SEC games and been rendered ineffective in two others because of injury?

Also, Tennessee has a No. 7 RPI with a No. 4 strength of schedule.

Vanderbilt's RPI is 37 with a 21 strength of schedule.

Ole Miss' RPI is 60 with a strength of schedule of 75.

In the RPI, I rest my case.

PLAYER, FRSHMAN OF THE YEAR ARGUMENTS

While I think Lofton is the SEC's best player, I couldn't argue if Byars won Player of the Year.

While Lofton missed four SEC games and was ineffective in two others – meaning one-third of conference games – Byars was a consistent standout. In 16 SEC games, Byars led Vandy in scoring 11 times and in rebounding six times. He leads Vandy in scoring (16.9 points) and steals (1.4) and is second in rebounds (5.1) and assists (3.3). He is the team's best defender – a better defender than Lofton.

Lofton leads the SEC in scoring (20.6 points). He led UT in scoring in seven of the 12 SEC games in which he played. He has made 81 percent of his foul shots and converted 42 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Ramar Smith had a solid year at point guard, but the SEC freshman of the year is Patrick Beverley of Arkansas. Beverly was ranked in eight of the SEC's 15 offensive categories. In all games, he was ahead of Ramar Smith in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, field-goal shooting and free-throw shooting. Beverley also played nine more minutes per game.

Two arguments for Smith: He played a tougher position – point guard vs. two guard – and his team won more games.

UT TOPS NATION IN COMBINED ATTENDANCE

The Vols and Lady Vols once again led the nation in combined college basketball attendance.

The Vols averaged 19,658 – believed to be third-best in the nation. The Lady Vols led the nation for the 16th consecutive year at 14,678. The combined number: 34,336.

Kentucky is second in combined attendance at 29,284 (23,421 for men, 5,863 for women).


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