KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s last four games have all gone down to wire. Coach Bruce Pearl expects a few more close calls with the Volunteers’ new style of play.
The Vols are 2-2 in their last four outings, with games against Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Georgia decided on the final possession and their meeting with Florida going into overtime.
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“When you’re not pressing, when you’re not creating possessions … you’re going to have a lot of close games, and we’ve had probably more close games this year than the last three or four years combined because of the (slower) tempo of the game and fewer possessions,” Pearl said. “Therefore each possession becomes magnified.”
Tennessee (12-6) will need all the scoring opportunities it can get when it travels to No. 8 Connecticut (15-2) on Saturday. The Vols have already logged wins against then-No. 7 Villanova, No. 3 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Memphis.
Pearl, who will return to the bench after serving half of his eight-game suspension from Southeastern Conference play for lying to NCAA investigators, said the Vols must be especially mindful of their defense, rebounding and ball protection because of the Huskies’ athleticism.
“Connecticut is a brilliant fast-breaking team, great transition team, very, very long. The longest team we’ll play. The most athletic team we’ll play, probably. They’re one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country,” Pearl said.
The Vols have gained some needed confidence heading into Saturday’s game in Hartford, Conn., after pulling out last-minute wins against Vanderbilt and Georgia in their last two games.
In the final 2.7 seconds against the Commodores, Tobias Harris hit two free throws, and Brian Williams stole an inbound pass by Vanderbilt’s Brad Tinsley to seal a 67-64 win after overcoming a 17-point deficit. At Georgia, Williams made an improbable buzzer-beating fadeaway shot off a contested rebound to grab the 59-57 victory.
“The constant continues to be defense and rebounding,” Pearl said. “When we defend and rebound, we’ve won.”
Tennessee has defended some strong scorers this season, including College of Charleston’s Andrew Goudelock (23.4 ppg) and Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins (18.6 ppg), but none as prolific as Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, who ranks second in Division I with an average 25.5 points per game.
Walker had his worst shooting performance of the season against No. 7 Villanova on Monday but still managed to score 24 points and hit the game winner, a 10-foot floater with 2.5 seconds left that gave the Huskies a 61-59 win.
Williams, who like Walker is from the Bronx, and has played pickup games with the Huskies point guard, knows stopping Walker can’t be Tennessee’s only focus on the floor.
“Once you focus on Kemba the whole game, the other players go off,” he said. “We’ve got a good game plan going into the game, so we’ve just got to focus to the best of our ability and play great defense.”
The Vols will have Pearl on the sideline, helping them execute that plan for one game only before the coach serves the final four games of his suspension.
Pearl is only prohibited from being with his team on days they play an SEC game through Feb. 5, and he’s tried to keep everything as normal as possible for his players on the days in between games. He’s had very little discussion about the differences with him in charge on the bench as opposed to associate head coach Tony Jones leading the team.
“I try to treat it like an injury,” Pearl said. “We’re a man down, now we’ve got somebody back. We got healthy, and we’ll be back down a man come next week.”
In his absence from games, he’s been watching Tennessee on TV, analyzing and taking notes on a pad of paper. He’s also experienced the thrill and pain of watching the Vols work their way through the close game endings.
“I’m as much a fan as any Vol fan at the end,” he said. “The pad and paper are long gone by the time the game’s over. I’ve long since left my couch, and I’m up there screaming and cheering and praying just like every other Vol fan.”