Pearl challenges Vols to be more in charge of game

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl says his Volunteers have been

letting their opponents set the game tempo a little too much

lately.

“It’s not been as up as I’d like,” he said. “The one good

thing is we’ve been able to win games playing slower as well as

playing faster.”

That could change as the schedule gets tougher for the

ninth-ranked Vols (6-1). So Pearl wants his players to be more in

charge, starting Friday when they face Middle Tennessee State (3-4)

on a neutral Nashville Arena court in the Sun Belt Classic.

Pearl isn’t sure if his team is playing to the level of their

early season opponents like College of Charleston and East

Tennessee State, two surprisingly close games. He does know travel

to the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam tournament, a busy game

schedule and exams haven’t helped.

“I did feel like prior going to the Virgin Islands we had great

practices, very intense practices, knowing what was ahead,” Pearl

said.

Even though the Vols suffered their only loss of the season to

Purdue while in the Virgin Islands, the coach is challenging his

players to practice as if the fifth-ranked Boilermakers were still

their next opponent.

That shouldn’t be too tough considering Tennessee has games

against Southern California, Memphis and Kansas looming in the next

month.

Pearl met with the Tennessee’s four seniors before Monday’s

practice, cautioning them that it’s their job to push their

teammates to play hard and fast, regardless of who their next

opponent is.

“Your senior season is important, it’s your last season, and we

all realize that,” said senior point guard Bobby Maze said. “But

coach was making sure to remind us of that, that we need to lay

everything on the line. He let us know that we need to show that

leadership on and off the floor.”

Pearl is also looking for his players to do a better job

finishing around the basket. The Vols are shooting well, but

they’re not getting to the foul line as often as their

opponents.

Tennessee leads the Southeastern Conference in points (86.4),

shooting percentage (50.8) and 3-point shooting percentage (43.8).

The Vols have attempted 142 free throws compared to their

opponents’ 153 attempts.

“Even though we are shooting those percentages, I feel like

we’re missing more than our share of really good looks,” Pearl

said. “They’re not easy shots, but you’ve got to finish the play,

take the contact, keep your head up.”

To be sure it’s not a matter of physical toughness that’s

keeping them from pushing tempo and finishing their plays, Pearl

also supervised his players during a 6:30 a.m. weightlifting

session.

Senior Tyler Smith says it’s not about conditioning or physical

toughness, though.

“It’s mental, to us,” Smith said. “We did everything to be

prepared (physically) for this. We’re ready for it, but we’ve just

got to get through it mentally.”