Who's starting now?

Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl rarely changes his lineup by choice. This season, however, he had no choice. Fate has changed it for him ... regularly.

The lineup revisions began even before preseason drills did. Senior guard Josh Tabb left the program to tend to his mother, who is battling cancer back in Carbondale, Ill. Then sophomore forward Emmanuel Negedu was diagnosed with a heart condition that will sideline him for all of 2009-10 and may end his competitive career.

Down two players before the season even started, Pearl lost four more scholarship athletes on Jan. 1, when Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams and Melvin Goins were arrested in a highly publicized traffic stop, then suspended from all team activities.

Smith's suspension was changed to a dismissal on Jan. 8. Tatum and Goins were reinstated after four games, then rode the bench their first game back. Goins gradually has worked his way into a key role but Tatum suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss three of the last four games and play just four minutes in the other one.

As for Williams, he sat out nine games before returning and is just now beginning to shed the rust from his lengthy layoff.

Through all of the shuffling and shifting of personnel, Tennessee generally managed to remain competitive. The Vols carry a 20-6 overall record, an 8-4 SEC mark and a No. 19 national ranking into tonight's game at Florida. Based on that, some observers believe this is Pearl's finest coaching job. The fifth-year Vol coach isn't ready to pronounce 2009-10 the best or worst of anything, however, until the final horn sounds on this season.

"It's difficult to reflect with four games in the regular season to go and the tournament coming up," he said this week, "because so much of it depends on how we finish."

The coach readily conceded, however, that this season has been unique in terms of all of the personnel changes the program has had to endure.

"This has been a challenging year, specifically with the roster having taken so many shapes and forms through injuries, through career-ending injuries, through a family's cancer, through discipline," Pearl said. "It's just been tough."

As tough as the season has been, however, the Vols have been tougher. They've fought through numerous setbacks - on the court and off - to reach the 20-win plateau.

"As I've said, 'Adversity reveals character; it doesn't build it.' And I think in many ways the character of our program - our coaching staff and our players - has come forth to this point pretty well," Pearl said. "We've found a way to be competitive in a year when the league overall, particularly the East, is so up."

Just about the only lineup change Pearl made willingly this season was the recent one at point guard. With both starter Bobby Maze and backup Goins playing well, the coach decided to start Maze at off guard so Goins could start alongside him at the point. Maze has responded by recording a combined 29 points and 7 assists over the past two games.

"Bobby's playing well," Pearl said. "His all-around game has improved. The 40 minutes at the 1 just weren't enough for Melvin Goins and Bobby Maze, so I moved Bobby to get some time at the 2. He's in the game more, therefore he feels like he's a bigger part of the game."

Although he isn't the defensive dynamo Goins is, Maze did a superior job on South Carolina superstar Devan Downey last Saturday, limiting the Gamecock guard to 4-of-18 shooting and a mere 15 points.

"Bobby is not a defensive stopper but Bobby can be effective when he concentrates and focuses on it," Pearl said. "That would be the key to his continuing to get these minutes (at the 2 spot) - his continuing to guard."

That means Maze will continue playing both guard spots ... unless, of course, fate forces Pearl to make another unplanned lineup change.


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