Making his own name

It's a real challenge being the head coach's son but it's getting easier all the time for Tennessee's Steven Pearl.

The more productive you are, the less you hear, "He's only playing because his daddy's the coach." And - make no mistake - Steven Pearl has been pretty productive lately.

- He hit 3 of 4 shots en route to career highs in points (6), rebounds (3) and minutes (18) Jan. 23 at Georgia.

- He pestered 6-11 Vanderbilt standout A.J. Ogilvy into early foul trouble Jan. 27 in Knoxville.

- He recorded a team-high and career-high 4 steals Jan. 31 vs. Florida.

- He helped limit 6-7 star Tasmin Mitchell to 4-of-12 shooting Feb. 4 at LSU.

- He contributed 5 points, an assist and some superior defensive work Saturday vs. South Carolina.

Even Bruce Pearl, who is understandably reluctant to publicly praise his son, felt moved to acknowledge Steven's contribution against the Gamecocks.

"I thought Steven Pearl played very, very well in the time he was in there," the Vols' head man said. "He was very productive. We don't drop off when we go to our bench, and I think that's real important."

Although Steven's stats for the past five games are hardly imposing - 2.2 points, 1.5 steals and 1.0 rebounds per outing - the 6-5, 230-pound junior provided a defensive lift each time he came off the bench.

"I've got to be a solid defender," he said. "I've got to get my teammates into the game defensively because sometimes we have lapses where we don't want to play defense.

"When I get in there I need to get it going. I tell everyone, 'Let's start playing defense now, fellows.' On offense, I crash the boards, set up the offense and if I get an open layup I've got to make it."

Because he is so strong, so technically sound and so willing to mix it up on the inside, young Pearl is able to defend much taller opponents.

"He wants to guard the biggest guy out there," 6-9 Vol freshman Kenny Hall noted. "Sometimes I'll be like, 'Who am I supposed to guard if you're guarding the biggest player?' He's got a lot of heart, and I look up to him for that."

Steven Pearl has had to overcome two stigmas to get where he is today: In addition to being the coach's son, he is a walk-on. The fact he has defeated these obstacles to earn the respect of his teammates clearly means the world to him.

"It's good when they have confidence in you," he said. "The first couple of years they didn't have much confidence in me. Now that I'm starting to play more and starting to produce, it definitely helps that they have confidence in me. Then I can have confidence in myself to be out there at critical moments in the game."

After redshirting as a freshman in 2006-07, then seeing only mop-up action in 2007-08 and 2008-09, young Pearl began getting meaningful minutes in 2009-10 when four scholarship teammates were suspended on Jan. 1. He made the most of his opportunity, developing into what his dad calls "a part of our team chemistry."

Steven has become a part of the team's defensive chemistry, for sure. His work in that area has helped the Vols limit their last three foes to 60, 54 and 53 points, respectively.

"One thing about him: He will not let any player bump him out of position," Hall said. "That's what I like most about him; he's aggressive and he's strong. He played a big part in shutting down Tasmin Mitchell of LSU. Tasmin's a great player - has a lot of post moves and he's strong - but Steve practically shut him down that game."

Being an undersized walk-on, Pearl relishes the challenge of facing players with bigger frames and bigger reputations.

"I've guarded guys like Tasmin Mitchell and Trey Thompkins of Georgia," he noted, "so playing guys like that definitely helps when I go against guys who aren't as good as them. Being able to find my niche out there on defense definitely helps my team and gets everyone else going if I step up my defense."

Following a solid career at Knoxville West High School, Steven declined some small-college scholarship offers to attend Tennessee. He probably second-guessed that decision after playing just 52 minutes as a redshirt freshman in 2007-08 and 73 minutes as a sophomore in 2008-09. The fact he already has played 123 minutes this season reflects just how dramatically his role has changed.

"It's definitely changed a lot," he said, permitting himself a soft smile. "At first, I was Bruce Pearl's son, a walk-on, on the team because his dad picked him and stuff like that.

"I feel like more a part of the team now because I'm able to contribute and be a part of winning, which is good, instead of just being part of the scout team to get them ready for the game, then sit there and watch."

Steven Pearl clearly is having the time of his life now that he's playing a beefier role with the team.

"I'm having tons of fun," he said. "No one did (anticipate his newfound role) obviously but being able to help us win is so much more fun and gratifying. I never expected it would happen, then it just came upon me."

It came upon him due to the Jan. 1 suspensions. That's when he realized he needed to significantly elevate his game.

"I was like, 'You've got to get in there and do some stuff. You've got to work hard and contribute to this team,'" he recalled. "It's been so much fun - being able to win and get this thing going again."

As the fun has increased, however, so has the pressure. The more minutes you play, the more fans expect of you. That's especially true when your father is the head coach.

"If you don't produce, you're going to have people talk about you, obviously," Steven said. "I think the pressure helps me because I put more pressure on myself to produce and help my team. The pressure helps, but there's a ton of added pressure being the coach's son."

Dealing with that pressure is a real challenge, but it's getting easier all the time for Steven Pearl.


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