Exclusive Q&A- Tennessee's Steven Pearl

Exclusive Q&A- Tennessee's Steven Pearl

Published Feb. 18, 2010 10:06 a.m. ET

By Ned Colegrove

February 18, 2010

If you tune in to a Tennessee basketball game these days, at some point with the game in the balance, there's likely to be an important loose ball on the floor.  Somewhere in the pile you can expect to find Steven Pearl, a junior walk-on, jersey #22.  Yes, he's the son of UT head coach Bruce Pearl, but that doesn't explain his role on the team.  With its roster thinned by off-court issues, Tennessee faced an unusual crossroads in their season.  They were down to six scholarship players and in a brutal stretch on their schedule, including a battle with No. 1 Kansas.  That's when Steven Pearl stepped on the court.  He hasn't left it since- the junior walk-on is averaging close to 15 minutes a game now in one of the deepest divisions in basketball, the SEC East.  We caught up with Steven to talk about his transformation at UT, guarding the opponents' best player, and of course- Big Bruce.

Q- You all are right there in the mix in both the national picture, and in the very tough SEC East.  What's the feeling like right now around this team?

A-  People are excited, despite everything we've been through.  It's been a crazy season so far, but we've done pretty well and people are still 100% behind us with what we're doing right now, so that's good to know. 
We're 18-6, which is still pretty good.  We've played two tough games on the road and obviously we're just looking forward to playing our best basketball right now.

Q- You might describe this season as an emotional roller coaster- how do you shut off all that's going on around you and just focus on each other?

A-  We all know that regardless of who's missing or who wasn't able to play we still have good players on this team- we trust each other.  We just have to come together as a team and play together.

Q- That trust had to develop this year more than ever, right?

A-  I'd say we had it, but the situation itself made that trust ten times stronger, in my opinion.  It was tough for a little while because we didn't know who was going to be out there.  But we knew that the guys we had could score and could play so that definitely strengthened the trust even more.

Q- You've mentioned before that you and Wayne Chism have been through a lot as part of a group that started four years back, what's your relationship like with Wayne after all this time?

A-  It's definitely tightened our bonds because we've been here the longest.  I red-shirted my first year, but we came in together as freshmen.  We've experienced a lot together. 

Even this stuff, this was something we hadn't experienced yet and once all this happened, it just brought us closer.  We understood that we needed to be leaders more than ever- get these guys back to playing good basketball and stay together.  

I think the coaches knew that we would step up, they never really pulled us aside or told us, it was just kind of understood.  Everyone stepped up in a certain way, but Wayne and I had to do it to a different extent.

Q- On to your game specifically- of course everyone wants to know about the process of having to prove yourself more than maybe anyone else coming in as the coach's son.  Talk about the work ethic you've developed now to the point where you're averaging solid minutes in conference play?

A-  You know, my first three years I was on the scout team, I would take my minutes here and there- foul trouble minutes or if we were winning by a lot.  Now though, it's developed into something completely different because of everything that happened. 

The first couple games, I didn't really know what my role was and just tried not to make too many mistakes.  As the process went on, I earned more trust from my teammates.  They knew I was a good player.  Now though, I try to play good defense, rebound, keep my man in check and make my open shots when I get them- that's my role.

Q- That's something you must be proud of- that your dad trusts your game to stick you in a big time battle because of your abilities and decision making.

A-  Yeah, I really hadn't done that in a game.  He knew that I could play in practice, but he wasn't so sure if I could play out there in clutch minutes in the game.  But in the Kansas (win), I had a couple big plays and I think that affirmed their trust in me.  I could be out there and make things happen on both ends and not just log minutes.  

Q- So, has playing for your father been anything like you expected when you walked-on?

A-  Well people are going to look at you differently as the coach's son, there are a lot of expectations.  It was easy to bash on me when I wasn't playing much- people weren't afraid to say things.  But now that I'm starting to play more, it's been very rewarding.  

People know who I am now, it's not just, "Bruce Pearl's son", it's, "Steven Pearl, the guy who's out there wearing number 22"- that's the most gratifying part about it.

Q- Well you clearly haven't been shy when you're in there- commentators talk about you coming in and playing physical defense.

A-  Yeah, a lot of the best players in this league are at the 3 or 4 position.  So when I'm out there I'm usually guarding one of their best players.  I know I have to keep them from scoring and off the boards... maybe draw a couple charges or fouls and get as many rebounds as I can... make sure to keep that player in check and frustrate him a little bit.  

Q- You must earn your teammates' respect then coming right off the bench to guard the other guys' best player?

A-  Yeah, in practice I've gone against guys like Wayne Chism, Tyler Smith, Dane Bradshaw, J.P. Prince, so I'm used to guarding good players.  They know that I'm physical and I move my feet pretty well.  I'm only 6'5", so I'm basically a guard playing the power forward position.  I need to move my feet to stay in front of guys and stay strong to keep them out of the lane.

Q- The roster is full again, though and you're still getting good minutes- how do you feel about the role you've settled into?

A-  I love it- it just shows that the hard work has payed off.  It showed that I still need to be out there.  I'm still getting good minutes.  Now that these people are coming back and they're letting me stay out there- that's very gratifying. 

Q- When you look at some of your personal goals then coming into this season- has this surpassed them or are you still pretty hungry for more?

A-  From my goals at the beginning of the season, this surpassed them.  But once everything started to happen, I still feel like I have more goals that I need to set and surpass because I can't be satisfied yet- I need to get better every day.

Q- Looking ahead now to that next meeting with Kentucky (2/27 in Knoxville).  Is that the one everyone is circling for payback?

A-  Well, we know we went there and gave a good fight, but we can't look ahead to that game.  Obviously it's a big one and there's going to be a lot of hype around it, but we have to get ready for one game at a time- Georgia, South Carolina, take it one game at a time to improve our record.  Concentrate on playing our best basketball at the end of the season.

Q- So considering expectations, 2010 will be considered a successful season for the Tennessee team in your eyes if...

A-  Man, tough question- we'd love to get past the sweet 16, never done that in program history- if we could do that, it would be great.

Q- With some guys on their way out and some new ones coming in at your position, where do you think you'll fit in next season?  

A-  First off, I'd just love to get out there and get some minutes.  We have Tobias Harris (Dix Hills, NY) coming in, the number one ranked power forward in the country.  We'll still have Renaldo Woolridge, and then Jeronne Maymon, who's a Marquette transfer.  He's another very strong and physical player so I'll have my hands full at that position.  But hopefully I can keep my niche and keep doing what I do next year- get as many minutes as I possibly can.

Q- We have to imagine as one of the team leaders, you'll have a lot to say for how well Tennessee will do in your final year.

A-  Yeah, we might be shorthanded because we'll be missing (seniors) Wayne, and J.P. and Bobby (Maze), so we'll just have to step up, kind of like we did this year.

Q- What about your future down the road- what are some career goals, maybe aside from basketball that you might have?

A-  Get a good education, start a Sports Management masters (at UT), then maybe a sales job- make a good amount of money hopefully!  Never want to count out basketball, but I'll start focusing on getting a job.

Q- Dad doesn't want you to work for him someday does he?

A-  (Laughs) No, we haven't talked about that.  I'd definitely have to start low and work my way up though!

Q- Do you guys see each other much during the season outside of basketball?  

A-  Yeah, I'll go over to the house and kick it, we'll hang out- cook a little bit, have those home-cooked meals.  We watch football on Sundays.

Q- He's not allowed to just pop in at your apartment on campus, is he?

A-  No! (Laughs) He doesn't even know where I live!  He knows where the complex is, but he doesn't know which building it is... I keep that under wraps.  I usually know where he is but it doesn't go both ways.

Q- What about regular father/son stuff to stay normal?

A-  In the summers we'll go out on the lake, we play a little golf.  When I'm hitting it well, I'm about a 10-12 (handicap), but he's about an 18 since his back has been messed up.

Q-How about if the Lady Vols make a run through the Women's tournament and maybe have a big match-up with UCONN, you think he will be there with a painted chest rooting for coach Summitt's team?


A-  Well, hopefully we'll still be playing!  I'm sure he'll be there, though.  I don't think he'll be painting his chest though, I don't think we'll see that anymore!

Q- Wrap things up for us as we head towards March and this postseason.

A-  As far as me, keep playing solid defense.  Keep understanding my role, doing the things I've been doing and even a little more.  For the team, we've got to be playing our best basketball towards the postseason- it doesn't matter what your record is.  It doesn't matter how big you are or how good you think you are, all that matters is how well you're playing as a team.

Q- What do you want people to know around the country about this program and this team?

A-  We're a bunch of tough minded kids who have gone through a lot and worked through it and are still being successful.

To read more about Steven and the Tennessee squad, click here.