Pearl vision

The Tennessee basketball season didn't end the way Vol fans wanted it to. It didn't end the way Bruce Pearl wanted it to, either.

``I'm disappointed that in the postseason we didn't play better or advance,'' Pearl said.

But that shouldn't take away from all the things the Vols accomplished over the last five months.

Yes, basketball is a tournament sport. Yes, what you do in March is important. But what you do from November through February is important, as well.

That's why Pearl isn't hanging his head. He's more focused on hanging the SEC Championship banner. He's more focused on what UT did – not what it didn't do.

``I think you could make an argument we had the best regular season in college basketball,'' Pearl said, pointing out wins at Memphis, at Xavier, at Gonzaga, going 14-2 for the school's first outright SEC title in 41 years and having the top RPI ranking of the 2000s.

All that didn't help Tennessee reach the Elite Eight for the first time, but it did make for a thrilling season at a school that didn't have much to cheer about in men's basketball from 1982 to 2004.

Tennessee had a better chance to reach the Elite Eight last year when it led Ohio State by 20 points before losing by one in the final seconds of the Sweet 16.

``The Ohio State matchup was a great matchup for us,'' Pearl said.

The Louisville matchup was not. The Cardinals were long and lanky on the perimeter, disrupting the 3-point shots of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith and swatting away driving attempts by Ramar Smith.

``I tell you what, Louisville was better,'' Pearl said. ``Louisville was the better team. They were better coached that night and we deserved to get as far as we got. If we'd gotten beat by an inferior team, I'd tell you.''

That wasn't the case. That's why Pearl won't stew over the 19-point loss to Louisville the way he did after losing by one to Ohio State.

This season, Tennessee was better in the half-court defense, but not as good in the half-court offense and it didn't press as well.

Pearl said the Vols missed Dane Bradshaw in the half-court offense because he was effective at breaking teams down and getting guys shots. And, for whatever reason, Pearl said, Ramar Smith and Jordan Howell were better at the point than this year.

``Late in the year, we turned the ball over too much,'' Pearl said.

Pearl agreed with the assessment that a decline in turnover margin – from 6.4 the first 29 games to 1.2 the last nine – was a big factor.

``I thought that was an excellent article,'' Pearl said of a column written by John Pennington. ``It made a lot of sense. We weren't creating as much offense with our defense. That was a big part of what we did. But, more than anything, our turning the ball over was a factor.''

Pearl said he wishes he could have gotten production from J.P. Prince without him making turnovers. But Prince, inserted into the lineup as a point guard in Game 35, was unable to get UT over the hump.

It didn't matter. While the Prince experiment didn't pay dividends, UT would have had the same result if it had played only Ramar Smith and Jordan Howell at the point – a Louisville loss.

So where does Tennessee go from here?

Maybe up.

It'll be hard to repeat a 14-2 SEC record or win 31 games. But if the Vols sign Parade All-American Scotty Hopson – who committed earlier this week – and forward Tyler Smith returns, the Vols should be better in the half-court offense, better with the press, better at playing a zone with taller wing players and better off the bench.

Truth is, the depth of this past season was overrated. Once Howell went in the tank, the Vols only had two or three guys coming off the bench who were productive – Prince, Duke Crews and Brian Williams.

Next season, if you project Ramar Smith, Tyler Smith, Hopson, Wayne Chism and Prince as starters, the depth could come from a Williams, Crews, Cameron Tatum, Renaldo Woolridge, point guard Daniel West, Josh Tabb, Ryan Childress and Phillip Jurich.

That's eight potential contributors coming off the bench.

``We should be able to maintain this level of competitiveness,'' Pearl said.

When you watched North Carolina beat Louisville by 10, you probably thought the Vols have a ways to go to compete with the elite.

But when you watched Memphis destroy Texas, and you remembered how the Vols won at Memphis, you could argue the Vols weren't that far away.

Pearl believes the Vols will be a better pressing team and a better zone defense team because of athleticism and length. With the 3-point line moving back a foot, Pearl figures to play more zone.

``We'll have bigger guards and our bigs are mobile,'' Pearl said. ``They can move their feet. That (zone) can be a very effective defense for us next year.''

Pearl said he anticipates giving Prince a look at the point next season, but that depends on Prince's and Ramar's summer development.

What does Ramar need to improve upon at the point?

``I'd like to see Ramar get great from the foul line,'' Pearl said of the 60-percent foul shooter. ``I'd like to see Ramar penetrate and rather than finish, I'd like to see him be able to spoon feed. I'm going to really work with Ramar in the offseason to be a distributor.

``I know he can make tough twos, but I want him to make his team better by being a better passer and I want Ramar to get in the best shape of his life so he can take advantage of his physical attributes and be a great defensive guard.''

One more thing – he wants Ramar to work on his 3-point shot.

``For Ramar, it's going to be quality, not quantity. He's not going to take a lot of three balls, but the ones he takes, he needs to make at a higher percentage.''

Pearl agreed that the Vols need to be able to score more 2-point baskets which will improve the consistency of the offense.

``We may have been reliant on the 3-ball, but you don't win on the road like we won on the road unless you're able to defend and rebound. Not enough has been made about the fact we led the SEC in rebounding in SEC play. That's significant. When is the last time a Tennessee team led the SEC in rebounding?''

You could ask that question about a lot of things UT accomplished last season.

Now the question is: When will UT get to the Elite Eight?


Tyler Smith and Chism have filed papers with an NBA advisory committee to see where they project to go in the June 26 NBA draft.

Results should come within the next 10 days.

``If he can get into the teens in the draft,'' Pearl said of Smith, ``then that's what he needs to do. Below that, there's a lot of math that says he should try to come back because of the difference in security and financial package. If he can get himself 10 picks higher next year, he would be tripling his money and his security.

``I can tell you he wants to stay, but that doesn't mean he will, and that doesn't mean he should.''

According to six mock draft boards, Smith is projected to go between the 16th pick of the first round to early second round. Three had him going in the 20s.


Can Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith play in the NBA?

Pearl thinks they can – if they get with the right team.

Each is about 6-2. Lofton is the better shooter, Smith the better athlete and defender.

They are among 32 seniors invited to the NBA tryout camp in Portsmith.

``Just go ahead and bet against (Lofton),'' Pearl said. ``There's a reason why we won the SEC. … Now, he might not be the right guard for every system, but Chris Lofton will rise to the occasion. He's not going to have the length and he's not going to have the athleticism, but he's going to make open shots and contested shots and he's a much better defender and a guy off the bounce than what people give him credit for. He just didn't play above the rim. There's not a lot of guys that are in the NBA that do not play above the rim, but he's one of them.''

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