``This team is positioned to make a step next year and our goal is to get to the Final Four,'' Pearl said recently.
Bruce Pearl believes that because he returns eight of his top nine players from a team that led national champion Florida by 27 points and runner-up Ohio State by 20. If you can do that, you're not far from knocking on the Final Four door. If you can do that, you're relevant in the world of college basketball.
And, Pearl is excited about some of his newcomers and about the development of some of his younger players.
``Our roster will finally look a little bit more like a roster capable of competing against Ohio State and Florida,'' Pearl said. ``This past year, did it? I don't know that it did. And yet, we were awfully, awfully close.''
``Prince is longer, he's bouncier and he's tougher and he has a higher basketball IQ than I anticipated,'' Pearl said after watching Prince practice for a few months. ``And he shot it a little better. He still doesn't shoot it well enough. He's put on weight and strength and that should give him the confidence to do what he needs to do.
``I was very, very uncertain as to whether or not it was in the best interest of J.P. Prince and Tennessee basketball to take him at mid-semester. Based on what I've seen this spring – and I would remind you that what I've seen this spring is only 25 percent of what I really need to make a good evaluation – I'm glad we took him.''
Pearl said he's excited about Williams.
``I'll take credit and I'll take blame if he doesn't develop,'' Pearl said. ``This kid is a lot better than he was rated. He's a big man that can move his feet. He's got great hands. He's got a high basketball IQ. He can shoot the basketball. And when he gets to be physically conditioned like a high major Division I athlete, there's just no telling what he can do.''
Pearl is concerned about replacing the leadership and intangibles of 6-4 power forward Dane Bradshaw. But, contrary to the last two seasons, Pearl will have some options at the spot. He could go with Prince, Wayne Chism or Ryan Childress.
``In the past two years, we had no choice,'' Pearl said of power forward. ``It was the only hand I could play. We played it to the best of our ability. But this time for the first time, I'll have a choice.''
Pearl is high on Chism.
``I think he can be an All-American and I think he can be a terrific pro,'' Pearl said. ``Wayne has a beautiful body and it's a body that will develop and grow as it gets stronger and more flexible and bouncier. His skill package is really, really good for a man his size. He's a big man with the ability to move his feet. Defensively he can guard. That's where Wayne separates himself from other bigs.''
Crews was a bit of a disappointment his first season. His offensive game is limited and he wasn't as productive as UT had hoped. Where does he need to improve?
``Two areas,'' Pearl said. ``In order for Crews to take advantage of the fact that he should be the Tasmanian Devil, he should be Ben Wallace or Dennis Rodman, he should be the highest energy and most physical player in the country, he needs to get in great condition. He's never going to enjoy the size of Joakim Noah or Al Horford or Wayne Chism. So he needs to make up for it in other areas.
``The other area would be his skill package – his ability to shoot the basketball, handle the basketball, pass the basketball. Those can improve.''
Pearl thinks it will be easier to improve Crews' conditioning than his skills.
``We're going to work on both,'' Pearl said. ``But if I can convince Duke that is the way to go, he can be an awesome, awesome college player and also an All-American.''
PEARL MIGHT GET RAISE
Pearl's contract basically mirrors that of Summitt: six years, $7.8 million.
Considering Iowa approached Pearl, many feel Pearl will get a raise. Pearl said he has visited with athletic director Mike Hamilton. He didn't indicate what might be forthcoming with his pact.
``I don't think you should use somebody else's interest … as an instrument to increase your own contract,'' Pearl said. ``I'm paid very, very, very, very well at the University of Tennessee and it's very competitive within the frame work of where I want it to be in the SEC. And just like I told Mike when we redid the contract last year, `Where do you expect Tennessee basketball to finish?'''
Hamilton said top four of the SEC, competing for the conference title, and landing a berth in the NCAA Tournament, Pearl said.
``I said, `Well then, just pay me there. That's all I want. If that's where you want me to be, and I agree, then that's where the Tennessee men's basketball coach should be compensated, and that's where I will be.'''
Pearl is believed to be the third-highest paid coach in the SEC, behind Kentucky's Billy Gillespie and Florida's Billy Donovan.
PEARL HOPED DONOVAN WOULD TAKE UK JOB
Pearl said he was hoping Donovan would get the Kentucky job.
``With Billy Donovan at Kentucky, Florida is not going to be the same program,'' Pearl said. ``It's just not. And Kentucky is always going to be Kentucky.''
Pearl said one of the great challenges about coaching at Tennessee is the competition. Besides Florida and Kentucky, he points to Vanderbilt usually being strong, Georgia on the rise with Dennis Felton and South Carolina being tough with Dave Odom.
``Remember when the ACC had eight teams?'' Pearl said. ``Well, the SEC East is a lot like the old ACC with eight teams.''