Tennessee (9-3) has lost three of its last seven games heading into Wednesday night's 9 o'clock tipoff vs. Gonzaga, prompting many fans to blame the Vols' talented but unpolished freshmen. Pearl says the blame lies elsewhere ... particularly in terms of defense.
"Every one of our freshmen, with the exception of Emmanuel Negedu, is big for his position," Pearl said. "Scotty Hopson is a big 2 guard at 6-6, 6-7. Cameron Tatum is big for a 2 guard at 6-6, 6-7. Renaldo Woolridge is big – almost 6-9 now – as a 3 (small forward).
"As a result, the quickness factor isn't as big. Therefor, we're not turning people over, we're getting beat more off the bounce and our bigs are having to help more."
Like its defense, Tennessee's 3-point shooting has slipped from last season to this season. Again, Pearl believes the freshmen are taking more blame than is warranted.
"Our three best shooters last year were seniors," the coach said, referring to Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell. "This year our three guards that shoot the ball – Renaldo, Scotty and Cameron – are all freshmen."
Rather than make the freshmen scapegoats for Tennessee's recent struggles, Pearl essentially points to everyone BUT the freshmen.
"If you were to say, 'What's wrong? Why isn't it where it ought to be?' I would leave the freshmen out of it," Pearl said. "I think they're about where we thought they would be.
"Scotty, Cameron and Renaldo have all shown signs (of progress) and have pretty much been what we thought they would be.
"Scotty has really worked hard defensively. He's getting more loose balls and he's rebounding a little big better.
"Cameron's the same way ... inconsistent shooting.
"Renaldo is a big man who can shoot the ball.... Can he score in other ways? But his defense has improved and he's rebounding pretty well for his position."
Ultimately, Pearl does not blame UT's recent slump on the rookies and he's convinced their teammates feel the same.
"I think if you asked our team it (deeper problem) is about our returning guys," the coach said. "It's about the coach that has to step up. I think the freshmen are coming along OK."
For the most part, Tennessee's veteran players have not played up to their potential. The exceptions are Wayne Chism (who has been outstanding lately) and J.P. Prince (who has been hampered by injuries).
"If you want to point fingers," the coach added, "point 'em at me and point 'em at the guys coming back."