Is Tennessee distracted?
As Bruce Pearl and Jim Calhoun exchanged pleasantries seconds after the final buzzer sounded, their lips weren’t quite as easy to read as last week when Kentucky coach John Calipari bestowed no shortage of expletives upon Terrence Jones.
But here’s my best guess:
Pearl: "Good luck, Jim. Hope everything works out with you guys and the NCAA doesn’t hit you too badly.”
Calhoun: “You too, Bruce. Good to see you on the sideline again — even if it was only for a game. Hope you guys get through your deal all right.”
Pearl’s return to the sidelines four games into his eight-game SEC-imposed suspension was forgettable — a mediocre effort in a 72-61 loss at UConn in which he was able to coach his team because it was a non-conference contest.
“It was a severe penalty,” Pearl said before heading off to serve the remainder of his league sentence.
Pearl got hit with eight games by SEC commissioner Mike Slive for lying to the NCAA about illegally hosting a few recruits at his house.
But that may not be it — as the NCAA is still investigating Pearl and the program and has yet to issue a final ruling.
The guy on the other side of the court, Calhoun, a Hall of Famer who has won a pair of national championships, has also been under intense scrutiny as the NCAA continues to wrap up its near two-year investigation stemming from the illegal recruitment of Nate Miles.
Both programs have already self-imposed sanctions.
UConn, which is likely to receive the ruling from the NCAA in the next couple of months, hit itself with probation, a loss of scholarships and coaches not being allowed to recruit. Two assistant coaches also lost their jobs.
Tennessee docked Pearl $1.5 million in pay and all three of his assistants were forbidden to recruit anywhere from three months to one year.
But life goes on for now.
UConn and Tennessee were two of the hottest teams in America over the first month or so of the season. The Huskies won the Maui Invitational and Tennessee knocked off Villanova in New York City and then the second perceived Big East power, Pittsburgh, on the road.
But the Vols have fallen out of the Top 25 while UConn has found a way to sustain its success.
UConn star Kemba Walker was held to a season-low 16 points Saturday, but three other Huskies — Jeremy Lamb (16), Alex Oriakhi (12) and Roscoe Smith (12) — were all in double figures.
Calhoun’s team improved to 16-2 while Tennessee fell to 12-7.
“I think we’re the best 12-7 team in the country,” Vols freshman Tobias Harris said after the loss.
Pearl and his players maintain that the NCAA investigation and his suspension haven’t been a distraction. Pearl isn’t allowed to do anything with the team on game days, but he’s able to attend practice and do everything leading up to the day of the game.
“I don’t think so, but you’d have to ask them,” Pearl said of whether everything has distracted his players.
“It’s not like Coach Pearl or Coach Jones are playing the games,” Harris said. “It’s no excuse.”
“The biggest difference is their personalities,” Vols point guard Melvin Goins said of having to adjust from Pearl to associate head coach Tony Jones, who has taken the reins during the suspension.
Now Pearl, who said it crossed his mind to remain on the sidelines for Saturday’s game, will have four more games left before he returns Feb. 8 at Kentucky.
“Believe it or not, it didn’t feel that different today,” he said.
It shouldn’t have.
The Vols had lost four of the last seven games Pearl took to the sidelines — including setbacks to a trio of mid-major programs.
Pearl said his team’s struggles start with the inconsistency with Tennessee’s top player, Scotty Hopson, who finished with just 13 points and five turnovers.
But there have been many issues that have contributed to the Jekyll and Hyde personality of the Vols.
Perimeter shooting. Effort. Chemistry.
And they haven’t been able to handle the off-court distractions quite as well as their opposition did Saturday.
“It’s been tough,” Goins said. “But it’s something we just have to face and deal with.”
“I’m only gone for four more games,” Pearl added.
Then Pearl will be back. But for how long?