Tough row to hoe

The talent's scary, the schedule's hairy and the coach is wary. That's all you need to know about the upcoming Tennessee basketball season.

Head coach Bruce Pearl concedes that his 2008-09 team is enormously young but enormously gifted. He also concedes that his 2008-09 schedule was not designed to give young players time to develop gradually. The non-conference slate is a killer.

Calling the out-of-conference slate "the best in the country," Pearl noted that the 2007-08 schedule was rated No. 1 nationally but that this one "may be tougher."

He may be right. The '08-09 schedule is downright imposing, as the colorful coach is quick to point out.

"We open up the season with four contests against four teams that are picked to win their league," Pearl noted. "Chattanooga is picked to win their league. We went down there last year and they out-rebounded us by 20.

"Tennessee-Martin has got an NBA guard; they're picked to win the OVC. We've got to go to Middle Tennessee; they're picked to win the league that Western Kentucky won last year to get to the Sweet Sixteen.

"Then we've got Siena and play a team that beat Vanderbilt and is picked to win their league with everybody back. That's our first four games. Oh, and then we face the Georgetowns and the Marylands and the Michigan States and the other folks (in The Old Spice Classic)."

Shortly after noting that he and assistant coach Tony Jones have lined up "the most challenging schedule in the country," however, Pearl explained that there is method to their madness.

"It's what we want," he said. "It's because we feel to have a top-20 program that we've got to play that kind of schedule to be able to attract the television package that we've been able to attract, to be able to sell the tickets that we've sold."

Pearl has resuscitated a program that was on life support when he inherited it three years ago. He accomplished this by putting an exciting product on the floor and putting exciting opponents on the schedule. Teams like Texas (featuring Kevin Durant) and Ohio State (coming off a runnerup finish in the Final Four) visited Thompson-Boling Arena in years past. This year's visitors include 2008 NCAA runnerup Memphis and America's Cinderella program, Gonzaga.

"I am excited about our fans seeing Gonzaga and Mark Few up close and personal," Pearl said. "And Memphis coming back in here with their great team and coach (John) Calipari ... a team that played for the national championship. It's very, very exciting."

Just when Pearl has you thinking the Vols will be lucky to win a game this winter, the coach shifts gears and begins telling you that Tennessee will be competitive with every team on its prodigious schedule.

"We've accomplished more in this fall than any team I've coached – our individual workouts, our team individuals, what we've done in strength training," he said. "We've made more progress, but we've had farther to go than any team I've coached."

The 2008-09 roster will be young but long and athletic. Junior forward Tyler Smith (6-7, 220) is a potential NBA lottery pick. Sophomore Brian Williams (6-10, 270), junior Wayne Chism (6-9, 245), senior Ryan Childress (6-9, 240) and freshman Philip Jurick (6-10, 260) provide more heft on the inside than previous Pearl teams. Junior J.P. Prince (6-8), freshman Renaldo Woolridge (6-8), redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum (6-6), true freshman Scotty Hopson (6-6) and junior Josh Tabb (6-4) give UT incredible size at the wings. Junior college transfer Bobby Maze (6-2) and freshman Daniel West (6-1) will share the point-guard duties.

"I like our depth," Pearl said. "I like our athleticism ... but this team has probably got farther to go than any team I've had because of five guys playing for the first time in their first college basketball game, a redshirt freshman and a junior-college transfer. It's the youngest team I've had from the standpoint of that inexperience."

It's also the most talented team he's had. That combination should make 2008-09 one intriguing season in Big Orange hoops.


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