Hoosier Daddy?

Laboring in virtual national obscurity for nine years as a Division II head coach at South Indiana, Bruce Pearl could only envy the tradition, resources and players at IU, but after some miraculous work at Milwaukee-Wisconsin and two sensational seasons at Tennessee, he can now compete with the Hoosiers on even terms, and he's taking every advantage of that Big Orange opportunity.

Pearl did make a name for himself and gained much respect within the Hoosier State during his first head coaching assignment, but with over 300 Division I schools sanctioned by the NCAA, it was hard to compete for top talent, or to establish himself as a charismatic coaching entity. Besides, how can you compete against Bobby Knight's legendary outbursts and Gene Keady's outlandish do? Not to mention that these veteran head coaches won a ton of games and cast long shadows across the state.

Consequently, much of Pearl's success was attributed to his tactical insight and work ethic; byproducts many credited to his longtime association with the highly respected Dr. Tom Davis. Undoubtedly, Pearl learned a lot from the good doctor, but he also developed his own style and system at South Indiana. He proved his program translated well to D-I play at UMW, and at UT, he demonstrated it was worthy the toughest tests college basketball had to offer.

He also exhibited a high-energy approach and a knack for promotion that electrified Tennessee's fan base and had nationwide appeal. Choosing to closely align his program with Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols, as opposed to trying to compete against them for fan favor and attendance revenues, was another wise move that created positive exposure for the Volunteers.

Now every college basketball fan knows who Bruce Pearl is. Ditto for every college prospect. Doors that were once closed on the recruiting trail are suddenly wide open. That's particularly true in Indiana where Pearl made many contacts in the high school ranks during his nine-year stint at South Indiana.

That familiarity with the state helped lay the groundwork for the acquisitions of Tony Passley and Marques Johnson, and although neither player is any longer at UT both represented talent upgrades when they were signed. Johnson of Fort Wayne, Ind., was rated a top 100 player, and Passley, who originally signed with Pearl at UMW, was an obvious fit for his high-octane system.

Not to be dissuaded by those near misses, Pearl & Partners are back in the hunt for Hoosier hardwood talent and have drawn a bead on a couple of real up-and-comers.

The Vols are among a long list of nine contenders battling for the services of five-star power forward Tyler Zeller, 6-11, 230, of Washington, Ind. They are joined in that pursuit by Indiana, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Purdue. As things stand UT is probably a long shot for the nation's No. 5 ranked prospect at his position, going up against three in-state schools and a slew of powerhouses.

However he has yet to name a favorite and his style of play dovetails quite nicely with Pearl's pressure defense and up-tempo offense. Zeller's strengths are his ability to run the floor and to play facing the basket. He's a versatile performer with excellent touch and unlimited upside.

Zeller, the nation's No. 18 ranked prospect in the Class of 2008, is expected to cut his list of favorites to five before the end of the month, and commence with official visits this fall. If the Vols are fortunately enough to sign the big man he could prove to be as important to their basketball fortunes as Joakim Noah was to Florida's success.

Another Indiana prospect UT is involved with is combo guard Eshaunte Jones of Fort Wayne North Side High School. He originally committed to Indiana last November, but will attend Hargrave Military Academy (Virginia) this fall and has reopened the recruiting process.

The 6-foot-4, 170-pound guard averaged 27.7 points per game as a junior and connected on 97 of the 233 shots (41.6) he took from three-point range. He is ranked No. 73 among all players in his class, but his AAU coach, Eric Vaughn, told Inside Mizzou publisher Jeff Erman he should be ranked much higher.

"I'd take him over almost any shooting guard in the country," Vaughn stated. "The only three players I'd take before him are [2008 all-Americans] O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon and Derrick Rose, regardless of class. And this isn't just an AAU coach talking – I've been doing this a long time and have seen a lot of great players … I don't know why he's not a top-ten guy. There's no better combo guard in America."

The schools Jones is considering include: Georgetown, Indiana, Memphis, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Tennessee. He plans to take official visits this fall and take his time announcing a decision. A year away from Indiana might induce him to venture outside the state when making his choice and Knoxville is closer to Hargrave than the other schools under consideration.

That may be all the edge Pearl needs to land this gym dandy.


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