After saying two weeks ago he wouldn't play J.P. Prince at the point any more this year, Vols coach Bruce Pearl started Prince in arguably the most important game of the season – the second round of the NCAA Tournament against 11th-ranked Butler.
It was clearly a move of desperation. Senior point Jordan Howell is mired in a horrendous shooting slump – he's missed his last 14 shots and made just four of his last 40 tries. Ramar Smith had made 15 of his last 61 field-goal attempts in 11 of the last 12 games.
Pearl didn't have much choice but to bench his two primary point guards or risk losing.
Of course, he risked losing by making such a drastic change in game 35.
Prince had his good moments against Butler – nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists. He also had six shaky turnovers. And he can't shoot outside – he's made 2-of-12 3-pointers.
What does Pearl like about Prince at the point?
``He's a stat-sheet stuffer,'' Pearl said. ``We need him on the floor more. He's a back cutter, a rebounder, a passer, a finisher.''
Prince played 31 minutes against Butler. If he plays 31 minutes at the point against Louisville Thursday night, the Vols won't win. The Cardinals' press could prove too much for a 6-foot-7 left-hander who struggles going to his right.
Prince isn't the answer. Ramar Smith is.
Smith's strong finish against Butler left Pearl ``very, very encouraged.'' At the same time, Pearl said he wasn't surprised at Smith's solid play.
``That's the way he played down the stretch last year,'' Pearl said. ``He needs to keep that chip on his shoulder and play with intensity. I'm confident he will.''
Pearl said Ramar never lost the confidence of his teammates or the coaches.
Pearl is confident Louisville will press. Rick Pitino's team averages 14.6 forced turnovers per game – 3.6 fewer than the Vols. UT is better equipped to handle the press with Smith handling the ball.
In the half-court, Louisville plays a 2-3 matchup zone and uses its length and athleticism to cover the perimeter, where opponents shoot just 30.6 percent beyond the arc. (UT foes shoot 30.9 percent.)
Pearl said Louisville – a two-point favorite despite being the lower seed – is like Memphis except a better outside shooting team with more post options. The Cards hit 35 percent from the perimeter and four players have more than 45 treys (UT has two).
``Louisville has four or five big-time pros on that team,'' Pearl said.
A tough matchup for UT will be 6-foot-11 David Padgett, a Kansas transfer who missed 10 games earlier this season with an injury. He leads the team with 11.4 points and shoots 67.7 percent from the field.
``I love the way Padgett plays,'' Pearl said. ``He's there rock, foundation.''
Terrence Williams, a 6-6 wing, averages 11 points and leads the team with 155 assists and is second in rebounding (7.3). Earl Clark, a 6-8 wing, averages 10.9 points and leads the team in rebounding (8.0) and blocks (54). Guard Jerry Smith averages 10.5 points and leads in steals (60). Derrick Caracter, a 6-9 forward, averages 8.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and shoots 55.7 percent. Guard Andre McGee averages 6.4 points, is third in assists and leads the team in 3-point accuracy (40.3 percent). Juan Palacios, also injured earlier, averages 6.4 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Pearl said the Vols didn't play their best basketball in Birmingham, although they played well against Butler.
``We have to play better to advance,'' Pearl said. ``We're 40 minutes from going some place Tennessee has never been.''
That would be to the Elite Eight.
ENOUGH ABOUT OHIO STATE
Pearl said he's heard enough about UT blowing a 20-point first-half lead against Ohio State in a Sweet 16 game a year ago.
``Too much has been made of us blowing a … lead and not enough credit given to Ohio State'' said Pearl, adding that the first half was one of the best in Tennessee hoops history.
He said the Vols hit 11 first-half treys on the biggest stage and got beat by two first-round NBA draft picks – Greg Oden and Michael Conley Jr.
PEARL SAYS SEEDINGS HURT SEC
The SEC didn't help its perception that the league was down this year.
What does that say about the SEC?
``It says we got lousy seedings, that's what is says,'' Pearl said.
Pearl pointed out that Vanderbilt was the only higher seeded SEC team that lost and that 11-seed Kentucky pushed six-seed Marquette to the wire and 13th-seed Georgia had a double-digit lead over three-seed Xavier.
PEARL CALLS PRESS THEORY 'RIDICULOUS'
Pearl doesn't buy the theory that teams that press don't like to be pressed.
``I don't believe you press a pressing team,'' Pearl said. ``I think it's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. We know how to handle the press.''
Whether the Vols handle the press well against Louisville is another matter.
PEARL DEFENDS LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY
Louisville offered a scholarship to Chris Lofton during his junior year, but when he wasn't ready to commit, Pitino moved on and didn't offer Lofton as a senior.
Pearl defended Louisville and Kentucky for not pursuing Lofton harder.
``Coming out of high school, the guys they got were better than Chris,'' Pearl said. ``Why should they be criticized? Chris Lofton made himself an All-American. It wasn't Buzz Peterson. It wasn't Bruce Pearl. He's a self-made player.
``And recruiting is not an exact science.''
FREE THROWS: UT is a better foul shooting team than Louisville, hitting 65.8 percent to 64.4 percent. … Louisville (26-8) suffered five losses to NCAA Tournament teams (BYU, Purdue, Connecticut, Georgetown and Pittsburgh). Three were not: Dayton, Cincinnati and Seton Hall. … Louisville does not have one starter from the state of Kentucky. The starters are from Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, California and Wisconsin. … Contrary to Pearl's prediction, officials have not let teams play in the postseason as the majority of teams have incurred foul trouble during the NCAAs. Pearl hopes officials call games tight in the Sweet 16 because of the athleticism and physical nature of Louisville and North Carolina. … Pearl said Josh Tabb might have cost himself some minutes by not playing good defense in the first two rounds.