sports (2006-52)

Bringing Vol basketball back from the brink

Pearl in the Rough

by Tony Basilio

Consecutive wins over Memphis, Western Kentucky and Oklahoma State had Vol fans doing the unthinkable: Focusing on basketball before bowl season expired. The dawning of a new year sees Tennessee on destiny’s doorstep with a possibility of its deepest run in March looming. The Vols are truly a program on the rise. Their exploits have caught the eye of Sonny Smith, an East Tennessee native who raised Auburn’s program from the ruins a couple of decades back. Bruce Pearl and Tennessee have an admirer in Smith, who was a guest recently on my radio program.

It’s not that they’re doing it, but how they’re getting it done that confounds Smith.

“Used to be that presses could be real effective. But these days with teams playing three guards much of the time it’s hard to make a press work because you have three ball handlers now. Yet here’s Tennessee stealing the basketball on inbounds plays or making it difficult to get the ball in with precision. I’m amazed at what these guys have done. I really am.”

The ’06-’07 Vols steal an average of eight inbound passes per game. While that number blows Smith away, he says there is a method to Pearl’s madness.

"It comes down to what in coaching they call ‘one-time preparation.’ When you play Tennessee, you don’t play many teams that play like they do. I don’t think when people are preparing to play Tennessee they put their hearts in it. They think it’s an average press they’re going to see, but it’s anything but. One time they’re face guarding you. The next they’re allowing you to catch it and trapping all over the place,” Smith says. “The way Tennessee is approaching the game is a little bit different. Especially for teams that have never seen them.”

Smith, who like Pearl jumpstarted a floundering program at a “football school,” believes the best is yet to come.

“Number one, he sells his program and his system to his players. He sells the program to the public. And sometimes coaches will do one and not the other. Just from watching the players on the sidelines it appears to me that they have a tremendous trust factor. I can see that there’s great chemistry between the coaches and the players. That’s so hard to instill anymore because players have different agendas now with the NBA and things like that lurking around,” Smith says.

“I think to a certain degree, Bruce takes players that may not be quite as good. I don’t mean that as a knock on him or his program. But his guys may not be quite as good as some of the teams he’s beating and because of that he gets them to buy into his system and play harder,” Smith says. “Now this freshmen class he has now is very good and the young guys are buying in. That’s why his style is working.”

Smith sees Pearl as being in the right place at the right time. It’s something he couldn’t say for himself a couple of decades back.

“It took me longer to get it going, and I was at a place that didn’t pay attention to basketball until the bowl games were played. It still doesn’t, by the way. Tennessee on the other hand is a place that puts people in the stands, but Auburn didn’t do that. Winning didn’t even cure that,” Smith says. “In fact it was tougher getting people to come than it was to actually win there. Tennessee is different in that regard. That’s why I’ve always considered Tennessee to be one of the premier jobs in the conference from a potential standpoint.”

While it works with players, it doesn’t seem to endear him to his coaching peers. Kentucky’s Tubby Smith went out of his way to take a swipe at Tennessee’s inaugural season under Pearl recently in the press. John Brady at LSU was critical of Pearl’s antics after UT’s coach took to joking with the LSU students during a one-sided Vol loss in Baton Rouge. Georgia found Pearl’s going into the stands last year off-putting. Billy Donovan was less than thrilled with Tennessee’s celebrating a season sweep at the eventual National Champion’s expense. Memphis’ John Calipari ripped Pearl for being a “me guy,” predicting that UT’s players would eventually “see through it.” Despite a fast start, Tennessee was barely in the Top 40, yes, the Top 40 , in the coaches’ poll a few days before Christmas! It’s confirmation that his coaching brethren aren’t exactly shining to Pearl. Smith says to expect the freeze-out to continue.

“When you win early and you’re enthusiastic and as outgoing, you’re not going to be liked. [He’s] a little bit different than most coaches— the things he’ll do with the crowd, and his players. I think behind the scenes, coaches look on it behind the scenes as ‘Who is this guy?’ And ‘What is his deal?’ Like him or not, they have to give him his due because he’s exactly the kind of guy Tennessee needed. The way he’s being treated by fellow coaches may be a little bit of a jealousy thing as well,” Smith says.

As it enters ’07, Tennessee is poised to go into parts unknown. For a program that hasn’t had much success, a Sweet 16 would match the best showing in school history. Seemingly, after a couple of torturous decades, Tennessee has found the perfect guy. My partner Beano breaks down the Pearl amalgamation this way: “He’s part recruiter, teacher, promoter, coach, disciplinarian, salesman, PR man, con-man.” In other words, he’s exactly what this place needed.

This is getting good! Should be a Happy New Year for hoops fans! 

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.