Buff and tough

One Tennessee basketball player has spent much of his college career getting ripped - first in the chat rooms, then in the weight room.

Steven Pearl took some criticism for lacking suitable size, skills and athleticism when he joined the team as a non-scholarship player in 2006. One thing he didn't lack, however, was determination. That's why, four years later, he has added 35 pounds of muscle to what is now a finely tuned 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame.

In addition to the weight workouts all of the Vols perform, young Pearl does some lifting on his own each weekend. He still lacks the ideal height, shooting skills and athleticism to be a standout college player but he's buff and tough - attributes that serve him well when he's battling taller and more gifted players under the basket.

"That's the thing," he said, grinning broadly. "I don't have amazing height or athleticism, so I have to do it with my strength."

Knowing he lacked the ball skills to play on the perimeter, Pearl gained 32 pounds in his first three years of college to handle the rigors of life under the backboards. Then he diligently turned the added pounds into muscle.

"I had this weight as a sophomore," he said, "then I kept it up and (toned it) a little bit."

Pearl, who boasts a 315-pound bench press, said his strength has improved "ten-fold" since he enrolled at UT, noting: "Troy Wills, our strength coach, has done a great job of pushing me and getting me stronger. Tons of commitment in the weight room has helped out a lot, too."

That commitment paid dividends last season. After redshirting as a freshman in 2006-07, Pearl played sparingly in 2007-08 and 2008-09. He carved out a niche last winter, however, contributing key rebounds and sticky defense as an undersized but hard-working reserve power forward.

Known as Steven "Too Strong" Pearl in the Rocky Top League, he probably enjoys the summer league more than other Tennessee players because it provides an opportunity to score. On orders from his father, Vol head coach Bruce Pearl, Steven attempted just 41 shots in 32 games last season. He made 47.6 percent of his tries but still averaged a mere 1.5 points per game.

No longer limited to a complementary role, young Pearl is able to be more offensive-minded in the summer league. He averaged 18.3 points in his first three games and scored 26 in one summer-league outing.

"It takes me back to my high school days (at Knoxville West), when I was able to shoot the ball whenever I wanted to," he said with a chuckle. "That's fun. And you get to work on things you're not as good at out here."

So, what is he working on these days?

"Finishing over taller guys," he said. "That's the big thing. I'm also working on my ball-handling, distributing the ball and knocking down free throws."

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