March maulings

Bruce Pearl said basketball games get tougher in postseason play, and he's not just talking about the competition.

He's talking about style of play.

A foul on Dec. 12 might not be a foul on March 12. A whistle in early January might not be blown in mid-March.

That's just the way it is, said Tennessee's coach.

``They'll start to let you play as you get into tournament play,'' Pearl said.

As evidence, Pearl pointed to the recent Duke-North Carolina game in which the Tar Heels' Tyler Hansbrough, who leads the nation in free-throw attempts with more than 10 per game, didn't get to the foul line. And it wasn't because he never drew contact.

I think it's baloney that officials let players play during the postseason but call more touch fouls during the regular season. Shouldn't they be consistent? Shouldn't a player understand by game 30 what is or isn't a foul?

It's almost like changing the rules.

Will it help Tennessee? In some respects, yes. In others, no.

Tennessee likes to press full court. If officials don't call nit-pick fouls, the Vols might force more turnovers.

On the other hand, a physical game inside might hurt a team that isn't that strong or that tall.

``Will contact prevent us from getting a rebound?'' Pearl said of his team, which has outrebounded 11 of its last 13 opponents.

``Will physical play bother Tyler Smith or Ramar Smith when they take it to the hole? Or JaJuan Smith? I don't know.

``You won't get bailed out by a whistle. Every rebound is a man's rebound.''

Tennessee hasn't been a good team finishing around the rim. Allowing more contact only decreases the odds of the Vols scoring near the goal. And that could be crucial as UT engages in more half-court games.

Tyler Smith and Crews are plenty strong. But they are likely to face players just as strong and two to four inches taller.

It will be interesting to see how Tennessee responds to a more physical game, starting, likely, with LSU in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Friday.

LSU must beat South Carolina on Thursday to advance.

My call: If Tennessee defeats LSU, it will win the SEC Tournament. But don't be surprised by an LSU upset.

PEARL STILL SEEKING BETTER POINT PLAY

Pearl said the Vols need better play from the point guard position to advance in post season play.

What figured to be a strength, with the athletic Ramar Smith and senior Jordan Howell, has been a concern for most of the second half of the season.

Smith hasn't been able to finish around the rim; he's hit 18 of 72 shots in 11 of his last 12 games. Howell hasn't been able to hit outside shots; he's missed 22 of his last 25 3-point attempts. Smith can penetrate, but he's not an adept passer off drives. Howell can't penetrate.

``It's the only position where how they play swings who's playing when and how many minutes,'' Pearl said.

Sagging confidence has been an issue with both Ramar Smith and Howell.

``It's not about another person,'' Pearl said. ``We need Jordan Howell and Ramar Smith to play better.''

Pearl said it's too much to ask 6-foot-8 J.P. Prince to play both forward and point guard at this point in the season.

``He'd be out there thinking too much,'' Pearl said of Prince.

Ramar Smith is one of the few players under Pearl at Tennessee who has not shown improvement. As a true freshman, Ramar averaged 10.7 points and shot 43.7 percent from the field and 66.2 percent from the foul line. This season, he's averaging 7.6 points while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 61 percent from the foul line. He made 18 3-pointers last year compared to five this season. And his rebound average is down from 3.3 to 2.4. His assists and steals are virtually the same.

CAN SEC TOURNEY GIVE UT MOMENTUM?

Pearl said he does not see a correlation between how a team plays in its conference tournament vs. the NCAA Tournament.

The past two years, Florida won the SEC Tournament and the national championship.

A few years ago, Syracuse played its way into the Big Dance by winning the Big East Tournament, then lost in the first-round of the NCAAs.

``It can work both ways,'' Pearl said. ``I don't see it as a momentum killer or builder.''

In Tennessee's case, however, it could build momentum. Astonishingly, the Vols have not played on a Saturday in the SEC Tournament since divisional play began in 1992 – the only SEC team that can claim that dubious distinction.

And UT hasn't won the SEC Tournament since 1979.

A good run in the SEC tourney would not only enhance UT's bid for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but also provide a spark of confidence.

``We'll not throw it,'' Pearl promised.


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