Keepin' it real

Two years ago, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl spent the preseason asking fans to come to the games. This year he's asking them to come down from the clouds.

Inheriting a program fresh from a 14-17 season and four years without an NCAA Tournament bid, Pearl felt the need in the fall of 2005 to raise expectations and create some optimism.

This fall, with the Vols fresh from a 24-11 season that came within a blocked shot of extending into the Elite Eight, Pearl recognizes that expectations no longer need to be raised. They're about as high as they can get. Writers who cover SEC hoops recently gave Tennessee 28 of 30 votes to win the league championship. Many publications rate the Vols serious contenders for the Final Four.

Pearl doesn't want to dampen the enthusiasm but he doesn't want the media portraying the Vols as the greatest team ever assembled, either.

"You should expect us to be good because it's a better roster than what it's been," he said recently. "You guys (reporters) have your jobs and the magazines have their jobs. You've got to put somebody there (No. 1 in the SEC), so it's reasonable to put us there."

With eight of the top nine players back from last year, Tennessee already had a strong nucleus. The addition of transfers Tyler Smith (Iowa) and J.P. Prince (Arizona) gives the 2007-08 Vols a chance to advance beyond the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history and perhaps break the school record for victories (26) in a season.

Pearl is aware of this but he cautions that there are "so many factors" that can affect a team's finish. Untimely injuries can sabotage a season. So can disciplinary issues, shooting slumps and poor team chemistry.

Except for an ankle injury that sidelined All-America guard Chris Lofton for two weeks, the 2006-07 Vols managed to avoid these pitfalls. As a result, Tennessee was able to stand toe-to-toe with the two tops teams in the land last winter.

"One of the reasons there is so much optimism about this team is that we all remember how last year ended – Florida vs. Ohio State for the national championship," Pearl recalled. "One team (the Gators) we had played four times and had beaten them three of the four. And there was an Ohio State team that we could've/should've beaten but lost two close games. That gave us a lot of hope because those were the last two teams standing, so that's understandable."

Another factor that made Tennessee's 2006-07 season a rousing success was getting a favorable draw in March Madness.

"To get to the Sweet 16 we needed to have two good match-ups," Pearl noted. "Against Long Beach State we scored 121 points. The way they played (full throttle) would bother some people; it did not bother us at all. It was a good match-up. And Virginia, being a 4 seed, could've been a physically overpowering match-up. There were times in the SEC when we were physically overmatched."

Because Virginia was not a physically overpowering team, the Vols were able to nip the Cavaliers. Then, advancing to the Round of 16, UT encountered an Ohio State team it had taken to the wire two months earlier in Columbus.

"Then we get to Ohio State, a team we have some familiarity with," Pearl recalled. "You look at the way we shoot the ball from the floor and brought (Greg) Oden out away from the basket. We made 16 threes in the game – 11 in the first half – and that's the reason we got that (17-point halftime) lead. That might've been as good a 20 minutes as any college team played all season last year."

Tennessee's fan base thinks this year's team will pick up where last year's team left off. Thus, Pearl's attempt to rein in the runaway optimism probably is doomed to failure. After two decades spent watching mediocre basketball, Vol fans are expecting a very special season.

Bruce Pearl's challenge is to deliver one.


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