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October 18, 2006

Tennessee ready for Act II from Pearl

Preseason Top 25
Coaches on the hot seat
The College Basketball Wire

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Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and we will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 21 storyline focuses on Bruce Pearl's second season at Tennessee.

Bruce Pearl's first season in Tennessee turned out to be one of the biggest surprises and biggest stories of the 2005-06 season.

It looked like Pearl, who was a little-known coach from the mid-major ranks, had inherited a rebuilding project. Tennessee had failed to reach the NCAA Tournament during the previous four seasons under Buzz Peterson. The Vols stumbled to a 14-17 record in Peterson's final season. Plus, they were losing two of their best players, Brandon Crump and Scooter McFadgon.

Those factors didn't seem to faze the Vols or their new coach. On Dec. 17 they jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first half at then-No. 6 Texas and cruised to a 95-78 win.

Then, the Vols raced out to a shocking 11-2 start in the SEC. They knocked off eventual national champion Florida twice and came away with another eye-opening win at Kentucky.

The Vols wound up winning their first SEC East title in six years and captured a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The program received all sorts of national attention, but not necessarily because of what the Vols accomplished. The interest was in how they accomplished their success more specifically - the method they employed.

Pearl brought a new style of play, which he calls "controlled chaos," to Knoxville. The team pressed and pushed the pace on offense every chance it got. Even losses were exciting because the games were filled with quick baskets, big momentum swings and plenty of points. The Vols ended up leading the SEC in scoring at 80.4 points per game.

Pearl's flamboyant antics and personality also became a trademark. The former Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach was a blur on the sidelines, yelling incessantly at his players, referees and the crowd at times. A high school basketball official even asked that Pearl be removed from the gym when the UT coach was watching his son play.

Pearl made bold statements and very bold fashion statements including a bright orange blazer. The fans and media loved it all.

Thompson-Boling Arena, which was long known for its cavernous look during men's games, became a tough and rowdy place to visit. Tennessee enjoyed the biggest jump in attendance of any Division-I school, averaging 17,954 fans at home games - an increase of 5,279 from the previous season. Memphis was the only other school that saw an increase of more than 3,000.

Pearl became a regular on nationally televised sports talk shows and interview requests piled up from media outlets well outside of SEC country.

Now, much of the college basketball world is wondering what Pearl and the Vols will do for an encore.

It looks like a lot more entertainment is on the way. The Vols bring in the nation's No. 6-ranked recruiting class and face what looks like one of the nation's most difficult schedules.

The addition of five-star guard Ramar Smith and four-star big men Duke Crews and Wayne Chism gives Pearl more athleticism and talent with which to work. The return of junior guard Chris Lofton gives the team one of the nation's top perimeter shooters as well.

But the loss of guard C.J. Watson, forward Andre Patterson and center Major Wingate who was dismissed from the team by Pearl means the Vols will have one of the youngest teams in the nation.

There won't be much time to grow up, either. Tennessee is part of a preseason NIT field that includes Duke, Gonzaga and Indiana. The Vols have rematches with Memphis and Texas in December. They also face Oklahoma State and mid-major powers Murray State and Western Kentucky.

On Jan. 13, the Vols take a trip to Ohio State to face the Buckeyes and their No. 1-ranked recruiting class. Unfortunately for Pearl, Greg Oden is expected to be back in action by then.

There's also the brutal league slate in the SEC, which may be the toughest league in the nation. The Gators - who return all five starters - Alabama and LSU could all be ranked in the top 10.

There is reason to believe the Vols could take a step back this season, but after seeing the magic that Pearl produced nobody seems to be overlooking Tennessee. UT is ranked in the top 25 of most preseason publications. Don't expect Pearl to be satisfied with that.



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