Vanishing Vol

One Tennessee basketball player wasn't producing much magic lately ... until last night ... when he disappeared.

After starting five consecutive games and 10 of the previous 12, sophomore Renaldo Woolridge never left the Vol bench in Wednesday's 69-60 defeat of Georgia at Thompson-Boling Arena. He wasn't injured; he just wasn't utilized.

Head coach Bruce Pearl said after the game that he benched Woolridge to protect him, not to punish him. The 6-9 sophomore has been getting quite a bit of criticism on talk radio and message boards lately due to his on-court struggles.

Woolridge was playing about as well as anyone on Tennessee's roster in early January, going 4 of 8 against Charlotte, 4 of 6 against Kansas and 3 of 5 against Auburn. During that three-game stretch he was 11 of 19 from the field, 8 of 16 from 3 and averaged 10.7 points per game.

Over the next nine games, however, "Swiperboy" made just 6 of 36 shots (16.7 percent), including 1 of 18 beyond the arc (5.6 percent), while averaging 2.1 points per game.

"I just wanted to take pressure off of Renaldo," Pearl said. "I understand the criticism. So does he. I'm not done with him. I'm hanging in there with him. I just made the decision that Brian (Williams) was going to play tonight, and therefore it was Renaldo's minutes (that Williams played)."

Williams rejoined the team Feb. 6 following a nine-game suspension but played just three total minutes in his first three games back. Tennessee needed his size (6-10, 270 pounds) against an imposing Georgia front line Wednesday night, so he played 18 minutes - minutes that previously would've gone to Woolridge.

"Brian's minutes had to come from someplace," Pearl said, "and it came from Renaldo."

Despite his height, Woolridge is a finesse player who struggles against teams with the inside strength of Georgia. Essentially, he is a small forward trying to play power forward.

"Renaldo's been playing out of position at the power forward," Pearl conceded.

That's why Steven Pearl, the head man's son, played 13 minutes Wednesday night. The younger Pearl is only 6-5 but he's a sturdy 232 pounds and he's willing to mix it up inside. He actually did a better job of shutting down Georgia's 6-10, 247-pound Trey Thompkins (25 points) than Williams and 6-9, 245-pound Vol teammate Wayne Chism.

"I thought Steven Pearl showed us how to guard Thompkins a little bit ... bizarre but true," Bruce Pearl said. "Trey's a great player. He's going to be a terrific pro. But for two games (including last month's meeting in Athens) Steven kept it out of his hands, with backside help. The rest of our posts basically couldn't get around him, wouldn't get around him, and Thompkins almost beat us single-handedly."

Playing behind a walk-on who happens to be the coach's son can't be good for Woolridge's ego but Pearl clearly has been more productive the past three weeks.

"Steven Pearl, although he was behind Renaldo in the rotation, hadn't done anything to take himself out," Bruce Pearl said. "I thought we needed his defense and needed his toughness. I thought it was probably a good decision."

So, what's next for Woolridge? He considered leaving the team in preseason, so being benched could dampen his enthusiasm. Then again, sitting out a game to clear his head may be just what he needed.

"I'm hoping this will relax him a little bit," Bruce Pearl said. "He hears the criticism. He listens. And he's hurt. He's not played well. But this definitely was not a punishment. I just felt like, after a few weeks, Brian was ready to come back."

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