Calm before the storm

Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl strives to get 40 minutes out of his team each time it takes the floor. He hasn't gotten that lately but he has gotten enough to win.

In hopes of reversing this trend, he met with seniors Tyler Smith and Bobby Maze before Wednesday night's game with East Tennessee State University.

"He said just to try to sustain the intensity for 40 minutes," Smith recalled. "That's something we haven't done the last few games. We haven't done that for some reason."

Actually, the reason is no big mystery. The 11th-ranked Vols were distracted by Thanksgiving last week and by final exams this week. Their lack of focus showed in lackluster defeats of College of Charleston (86-69) and ETSU (78-66). It showed up on the practice floor, as well.

"I've not been happy with our practice the last week," Pearl said. "I chalk it up to finals and different things like that. We've got to get better leadership from that standpoint."

With more final exams scheduled early next week, Tennessee's players will continue to be more focused on academics than athletics in the days to come. Because Pearl takes the term "student-athlete" seriously, they must juggle practice, travel, games and schoolwork. That's a challenging task.

"This time of the year is just to try and get your body right, get a lot of shots up, get healthy and try to finish up the semester strong in school," Maze said. "This helps us a lot - having this (ETSU) game, then having the time off to recover and watch film - because after this it's going to be rough."

He's right. When the Vols return to action Dec. 11, they'll be hurtling toward the meat of their schedule. They play at Southern Cal Dec. 19, visit Memphis New Year's Eve and host Kansas Jan. 10. Then they'll begin the 16-game gauntlet known as SEC play.

Clearly, the Vols had better make good use of this seven-day break from basketball games.

"I think guys need it," Maze said. "A lot of guys' legs and knees are banged up. We need to just get a few shots up, lift a little weights and not go that hard. We've got to get healthy because we're going to have to go strong down the stretch."

The Vols also need this break from hoops to get their academics in order. They missed a week of schoolwork to play in the Paradise Jam tournament late last month, and now they're behind in the classroom.

"After coming back from the Virgin Islands, playing College of Charleston and ETSU, we've been away from school a lot," Maze conceded. "Teachers have a little sympathy for us - they know we was excused - but the bottom line is, we've got to get that work done. A lot of hours have been spent trying to study for finals and get these grades. You want to be eligible and you've got to get your legs back."

Although he starred as a guard in basketball and as a quarterback in football at Grainger County High, Vol freshman Skylar McBee says balancing athletics and academics is even tougher at the college level.

"In a high school season you play 30 games but it's not the same level of competition and you're not traveling as much," he said. "You're not having as much to do at school. There's a lot of things you've got to do (in college) - manage your time, get your rest and do the things you need to do to be in the best shape to play the game as hard as you can play."

Ultimately, this is a critical time for the Vols. They must pass their final exams to remain eligible. They must attend practice to stay sharp. They must find time to do some running and weight-lifting to prepare for the rigors that lie ahead. The performances they gave against College of Charleston and ETSU won't be enough against Memphis and Kansas.

Smith isn't worried, though.

"We're still getting better," he said. "That's what we're trying to do - just keep getting better."

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