Dane Bradshaw, who played two seasons (2003-04 and 2004-05) under Buzz Peterson and two (2005-06 and 2006-07) under Pearl, thinks the reason for UT basketball's dramatic rise in popularity is obvious.
"The easy answer is Coach Pearl," Bradshaw said. "Not every coach can get players to buy into his system. He's gotten the guys to buy into it. He's gotten the fans to buy into it. And he's delivered. He's fun to play for, he's fun to watch."
Rashard Lee, who played two years (1995-96 and 1996-97) under Kevin O'Neill and two years (1997-98 and 1998-99) under Jerry Green, is thrilled by what Pearl has done with Vol basketball.
"It's a lot more exciting," Lee said. "There's a lot more fan support. The fans feel a lot more involved. Coach Pearl and his staff have brought that to Knoxville. I think they did a really good job of bringing the city into the team."
Damon Johnson, a junior college transfer who played both of his UT seasons (1994-95 and 1995-96) under O'Neill, thoroughly enjoyed watching his alma mater play the past few years.
"It's beautiful. It's basketball. It's entertaining," Johnson said. "Bruce Pearl does a great job of entertaining but keeping the game the game.
"He still runs his offense, still uses the Xs and Os, but it's entertaining to watch. He's got the right players in the right style of play, and it's very interesting to watch."
Pearl has made the program more watchable AND more successful during his first four years in charge. In addition to two East titles and an SEC overall title, he has guided the Vols to four NCAA Tournaments, two Sweet 16s, a program-record 31-win season (in 2007-08) and a brief stint as the No. 1 team in America (also in 2007-08).
The next step is advancing beyond the Sweet 16, something the Vols have never done in program history.
"I think they're on their way," Bradshaw said. "You think about how many teams in the country are playing to achieve that level. I don't think they're that far away."
With the top 10 players back from last year's 21-13 team, Tennessee might be poised for a nice NCAA Tournament run in 2009-10.
"This year's team is the same on paper but they're going to be so much different on the court," Bradshaw said. "The maturity and the comfort level of these guys will really go a long way."