All the television networks that air Tennessee basketball games will have to find new graphics packages to fill airtime. The well-worn Bruce Pearl
suspension timeline can officially be put to rest.
The Tennessee coach’s eight-game Southeastern Conference banishment is over, and the schedule throws him right into the fire: Tonight’s game at Kentucky isn’t quite a must-win situation, but both teams are looking for some momentum to propel them into the second half of SEC play.
All things considered—including an ankle injury suffered by the Vols’ leading scorer, Scotty Hopson
, that kept him out of the last two games—Pearl’s staff of assistants, led by associate head coach Tony Jones
, performed admirably in his absence, rallying the team to five straight wins after an 0-2 start in conference. One more free throw in home-court, overtime losses to Florida and Alabama are all that separate the Vols from first place in the Eastern Division. At 5-3, they trail only the 7-2 Gators.
Could Pearl have made a difference in those overtime defeats or a three-point loss at Arkansas? We’ll never know for sure, and Pearl doesn’t want to revisit the past. He’s only concerned about helping steer the Vols to a sixth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance in as many seasons in Knoxville.
“Hopefully I can help,” Pearl said. “I don’t know if we’d be in any different position if I’d been there for eight games. I thought the kids and the staff did a really great job. You don’t want to play that what if game. I’m just going to come back in and try to help.”
Like Tennessee, Kentucky is a team that could easily have a few more notches in the win column had another shot fallen here or there. At 4-4, the Wildcats are tied with Vanderbilt and South Carolina for fourth place in a brutal, and crowded, division that has five teams ranked in the top 36 in the RPI. Only the Big East has more.
“They’ve lost four games in conference, all of them on the road,” Pearl said of the Wildcats. “ In all of them, they had a chance [to win]. They were down every time and battled back. They’ve got some character to them, some toughness, and they’re close to putting it together.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari
doesn’t expect Tennessee to look or play any differently now that Pearl is back on the bench.
“No, they’re 5-3 and had a chance to win a couple more, so they’re playing pretty good,” Calipari said. “They had to play without Hopson the last couple and still did fine. They’re a deep team, very talented, maybe the most talented team in the league. Deep from 1-10. They have great size, they play really hard, and they play physical. They’re going to bump and grind and grab, and they do it full-court, half-court. They play.”
Hopson is expected to play, though the experience of coming off an injury is foreign to him. He’s never missed a game in college and couldn’t remember if he ever missed a high school game.
“He’s never been in a situation where’s he’s had to play when injured,” Pearl said. “He’s played with some nicks and bangs and bruises, but now he’s coming back from that injury. Will Scotty in reduced minutes, without being able to be 100 percent, still be effective for us? Yes. As long as he and the trainers feel like the ankle’s tight, he’ll go.”
By contrast to the bunched-up East, Alabama has taken control of the West at 7-1. The Fast Break went to Knoxville last Saturday to see how the Crimson Tide has been doing its thing and got treated to a textbook demonstration. Despite not scoring a single basket in the last four minutes of regulation and the entire overtime, Alabama snuck out of town with a huge win thanks to some clutch free-throw shooting and stingy defense.
Alabama’s D, which we’ve discussed in this space previously, is solid and multiple. The Tide employs a helping man-to-man, mixes in some zone and hasn’t totally abandoned full-court pressure. Coach Anthony Grant
tosses in the press from time to time as a sneak attack, and it worked to perfection against the Vols, resulting in two quick baskets.
After the game, Grant managed a smile when asked about his team’s offense, which carved up Tennessee with 66 percent shooting in the first half but scored just 17 points in the second.
“Offense can come and go,” Grant said. “But our defense has been a constant. We don’t have a choice.”
Tennessee guard Skylar McBee
summed up Alabama nicely in a post-game appraisal:
“They’re tough,” he said. “They make a lot of hustle plays, get a lot of 50-50 balls, and they play hard. They’re going to fight you for everything.”
BUCKNER’S BLOCK PARTY:
The team many thought would be on top of the West right now, Ole Miss, is 3-5 after an 0-4 start, and if one thing is certain about the Rebels, it’s that they play better when sophomore post Reginald Bucker
is “engaged,” as coach Andy Kennedy
“He’s had a propensity to foul,” Kennedy said. “In three of our five SEC losses, he’s played 15 minutes or less. When we were sitting there at 1-4 in conference, in those five games, the maximum number of fouls is 25, and Reg had 22. When he’s not on the floor, you don’t that guy back there that can erase mistakes.”
Buckner was engaged in the Rebels’ win at Arkansas last Saturday, nearly racking up the third triple-double in the SEC this season with 11 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots. Those eight rejections tied Ansu Sesay’s
school single-game record and helped Buckner break his own single-season mark of 64. He’s already at 72 this season despite extended time on the pine.
“He’s such a physical kid,” Kennedy said in explaining Buckner’s shot-blocking ability. “Whereas [former Mississippi State star Jarvis] Varnado
was long and had great timing, Reg at 240 pounds can be physical while blocking a shot. He doesn’t have to lean and block shots off the ball. He can block shots on the ball because of his physical strength.”
The Rebels have a long way to go to reverse their poor SEC start, but if Buckner can stay on the floor, Kennedy is hopeful for the second half of conference play.
“It’s all about consistency with Reg,” Kennedy said. “Last year when we went into a swoon and play ourselves out [of the NCAA Tournament], he was hurt. When he came back, his conditioning was off and he had foul issues. He brings us so much from a defensive and rebounding presence … we need him on the floor.”
X MARKS THE SPOT:
Georgia coach Mark Fox
and his team could have had a nice, easy bye week after last Saturday’s closer-than-expected win over Auburn, but instead, Tuesday night the Bulldogs will tangle with a tough non-conference opponent when they play host to Xavier, 16-6 and tied atop the Atlantic 10 Conference at 8-1.
“For us, we just had a chance to get a high-quality, Top 25-caliber team on our schedule,” Fox said. “The fact that it’s coming this time of year was just kind of the way it would work.”
Fox called the Xavier game “a 17th conference game,” and RPI wise, he’s right. The Musketeers, who have played the 32nd toughest schedule in the country, are No. 24 in the RPI.
Georgia—which is also 16-6 overall and 5-3 in the SEC (the first time the Bulldogs have been above .500 in conference play in February since 2007)—hopes to derive benefit in playing Xavier, just as Florida did. After a sluggish start to their season, the Gators went to Xavier on Dec. 31, came out with a hard-fought 71-67 win and developed a knack for winning close games.
Since the win at Xavier, Florida is 8-2 and has won three overtime games, two of them on the road.