Vols hope to focus on hoops during NIT Tip-Off
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl never raised his voice, even though he's known for his combustible sideline demeanor. He never ducked a question or shunted blame toward someone else, instead accepting full responsibility for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators.
He called it an exercise in humility - and humiliation.
''I'm hoping the worst is over, but I can't be confident about anything,'' Pearl said Tuesday in an interview before the NIT Season Tip-Off. ''I let a lot of people down. I've always set a very high standard for myself and I didn't live up to it.''
Pearl was suspended last week by SEC commissioner Mike Slive for the No. 24 Vols' first eight conference games, after a raft of allegations that included excessive phone calls to recruits and improperly hosting their families at his home, which he knew to be a violation of NCAA rules.
The school had already imposed harsh penalties, which included docking Pearl's pay by $1.5 million over five years and banning him from participating in off-campus recruiting for a year. The NCAA also is expected to present Tennessee with allegations stemming from its own investigation in December and could decide to impose additional sanctions.
Pearl is hopeful the unprecedented steps taken by Tennessee and the SEC will appease the NCAA, especially considering Slive once chaired its infractions appeals committee.
''This is what he did for a long time,'' Pearl said. ''I'm confident that we've done a great deal to send out a very strong message, to myself, that when you break the rules, when you provide false and misleading information, these are the penalties that occur.''
The SEC sanctions prohibit Pearl from being with the team for 2 hours before conference games and an hour afterward. Associate head coach Tony Jones will take over during those eight games, beginning Jan. 8 at Arkansas, with help from assistants Jason Shay and Steve Forbes.
Until then, Pearl hopes attention shifts from the court of public opinion back to the basketball court, where Tennessee faces Virginia Commonwealth in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals Wednesday night. No. 7 Villanova plays UCLA in the other semifinal, with the title game scheduled for Friday.
''We're just worried about basketball. Whoever is going to be the coach, we're going to go out there and play hard for them,'' junior guard Cameron Tatum said. ''I think our team has responded well to it, and like I said, we really just want to get on the court and go and play.''
The Vols (3-0) have plenty of work ahead before Pearl's suspension.
Virginia Commonwealth (3-0) is one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation, and tends to push the pace even more than Tennessee. Their semifinal matchup just might wear a hole in the hardwood at Madison Square Garden before Villanova (4-0) and UCLA (3-0) finally step onto the court.
''This game should be fun from a player's standpoint, from the fans' standpoint, but I'm not sure about a coach's standpoint,'' VCU coach Shaka Smart said with a smile. ''We'll see about that.''
Regardless of the outcome, the Volunteers will face the Wildcats or Bruins two days later, neither of them a pushover. Then there are non-conference games against No. 5 Pittsburgh on Dec. 11, Southern California on Dec. 21 and No. 14 Memphis on Jan. 5.
Pearl's league-imposed suspension begins a few days later.
''The seniors, the ones with leadership, we need to take charge. The freshmen, I don't think they've ever been through something like this,'' Tennessee senior Brian Williams said. ''But I think we've all come together on the same page. That's what we have to do in the absence of our leader.''
The unwanted attention on Pearl and the Volunteers this week has taken some of the spotlight off the other teams in NIT Season Tip-Off, especially Villanova, considered the biggest threat to Pitt in the Big East and a potential Final Four team.
Wildcats coach Jay Wright said his veteran group is further along at this point in the season than he anticipated, after breezing by Marist and Boston University in the first two rounds of the tournament. He also realizes that his team will get everyone's best shot, starting with UCLA in the second game of Wednesday night's doubleheader.
''Most of our kids are from around here, we have a lot of fans and alumni in New York. To play on this kind of stage is great,'' Wright said. ''After four home games, I really like where we're at. We just haven't been on the road against this kind of competition.''