'Crunch time'

Before Tennessee's players can make the grade on the basketball floor, they must make the grade in the classroom.

That sounds pretty basic but anyone who follows major-college basketball knows it isn't. Some Div. 1 coaches couldn't care less if their players show up for class, so long as they show up for practice. Not Tennessee's Bruce Pearl. He's determined to see that his players are educated, as well as eligible

Anyone who has interviewed him can verify that Pearl pushes academics moreso than any Vol head man in long, long time. When he took the team on an exhibition tour of Europe last August he consistently emphasized the opportunity to broaden his players' horizons, as well as the opportunity to hone their hoop skills.

Moreover, nearly every comment Pearl makes about a player's progress athletically is accompanied by a comment about his progress academically. The coach regularly benches players for cutting class or failing exams. And he routinely gives more playing time to guys who are excelling in their studies.

Thus, it is no surprise that Tennessee, which moved to 8-1 after beating UT-Chattanooga last night, will not play another game until Dec. 15. The 11-day break may hurt the Vols' momentum a bit but that's OK. Pearl wants his players to spend this week focusing on final exams, not final scores.

"We try to stay away from scheduling games during finals week," the head man said. "There's a lot riding on it. Everybody that's getting ready to take a final or finish a paper is sitting on the fence between an A and a B or a B and a C. Hopefully, that's as far as the fence tips. It's really important for us to try and finish strong (academically)."

Although Tennessee has a lot of rough edges to smooth between now and the start of Southeastern Conference play in January, Pearl will not let practice work take precedence over academic work.

"We'll mix in practices as the finals schedule will allow," he said. "There probably will be a few more days off during this time. That's something I think the players need, simply for study and preparation."

Earlier this week Pearl did something that underscores his commitment to academics - allowing several of his players to join the team a day late for Tuesday night's game. Most of the team traveled to Chattanooga on Monday night, giving them plenty of time to limber up after the two-hour bus ride. Due to academic considerations, however, several players were encouraged to stay in Knoxville on Monday and join the team mere hours before Tuesday evening's game.

Why did Pearl permit this?

"It's crunch time," he said.

Academically, not athletically.

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