Pearl hopes to avoid 5/12 upset

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl called it poetic justice that the Vols are a No. 5 seed. That's because he sees himself as a 12-seed kind of guy. Not just in the NCAA Tournament, but in general. He sees himself as an underdog because he's been in that role so often.

But that's no longer the case.

At Tennessee, Pearl has all the resources to field a quality team on an annual basis. That's why he says his goal is to make the NCAA Tournament every year and crack the Sweet 16 door on occasion. From there, who knows?

At Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl fought an uphill battle. He said his office was in a 22-year-old double wide trailer. He fought major pro sports and Marquette for attention. He had a limited budget.

And, in his previous job, his team was a No. 12 seed both times it made the NCAA field. Wisconsin-Milwaukee lost to Notre Dame one year and upset Alabama in 2005, paving the way for his hiring at Tennessee.

Pearl knows the perils of being a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament

``We're in the dreaded 5-12 matchup,'' Pearl said Monday at his weekly press conference. ``What is it about 5-12? I don't really know. Why not a 4-13 or a 6-11? There's something to it.''

Yes, there is. In the past 10 years, the 12-seed has won 15 of 40 games against the favored five-seed. In the past six years, the 12-seed is 11-13 against the fives and has won at least one matchup each of those years.

Mike DeCourcey, college basketball editor for The Sporting News, said he thinks the 12 seeds are high-level mid-major teams with something to prove.

``It's harder at the five spot because you're expected to win,'' DeCourcey.

Tennessee is expected to beat Long Beach State. The 49ers have an RPI of 79. They played two teams in the NCAA field and lost by 30 to UCLA and by 18 to Southern Cal. They haven't been to the Big Dance in 12 years. They don't have a starter over 6-6.

UT, with a 12 RPI, is favored by eight points, by far the most for a five-seed over a 12 seed. But for the Vols to win, they must shoot better than they did against LSU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They must shoot better than they did in a 17-point loss at South Carolina.

Shooting has been an issue for UT. In 10 losses, the Vols shot less than 40 percent six times. They shot 25 percent against Butler, 34 percent against LSU, 38 percent against Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina and 39 percent against Ohio State. Not once did UT shoot 50 percent in a loss.

And in five of those setbacks, the Vols shot 30 percent or less from 3-point range.

Moreover, in those 10 defeats, opponents shot at least 50 percent five times.

Pearl said Long Beach State's Aaron Nixon (6-2, 230) is a difficult matchup because he is strong enough to post up a guard inside and too quick for a big man to handle on the perimeter.

The 49ers could also be tough against UT's press. They turn the ball over just 13.9 times per game and they start three guards and five seniors.

That could put much of the onus on UT true freshman point guard Ramar Smith, who is averaging 10.4 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 42.5 percent from the field and dishing out 97 assists, second on the team.

Smith was solid against some of the best point guards in the SEC. Against Florida's Taurean Green, Smith had 13 points and two assists in a loss and 10 points and two assists in a win. He averaged 12.5 points and 1.5 turnovers against South Carolina's Tre Kelly. He averaged 17 points and 3.5 assists against Georgia's Sundiata Gaines in two wins. He had 16 points (but 10 turnovers) against Ole Miss' Todd Abernethy. He had nine points and five assists against Arkansas's Gary Ervin. He had 13 points and seven assists against Mississippi State's Jamont Gordon.

He was 7-3 against the top point guards in the SEC.

``Ramar has done a really good job,'' Pearl said, pointing out that Smith was better in SEC play than non-conference play.

Pearl said Smith's transition was ``the toughest of any Division I player'' because he was a two guard in high school and AAU ball and was converted to the point.

``He's tightened the handle,'' Pearl said of Smith. ``He's had fewer unforced turnovers. Most of his turnovers are on good, aggressive plays. He's composed. He competes. He's an outstanding competitor. He hates to lose. His off-the-ball defense needs to improve. … He doesn't need to rest when his man doesn't have the ball.

``He's a 67-percent free throw shooter but he'll be at 80 percent because he makes them when it counts.''

And Pearl is counting on Smith making plays when they count in the NCAA Tournament.

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