KNOXVILLE — As soon as the University of Tennessee athletic department released this season’s men’s basketball schedule, this looked like the toughest week.
The first of this week’s two toughies did nothing to disprove that, as the 12th-ranked Volunteers left Memorial Gymnasium on Tuesday night with a humiliating, 90-71 loss at Vanderbilt.
And that wasn’t this week’s toughest challenge. That will come Saturday night in Rupp Arena, UT’s Big Blue House of Horrors. The Vols will play at the third-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, whose galaxy of stars arguably represent the nation’s most talented roster.
I spoke with a surprisingly upbeat Pearl after Thursday night’s practice, and here is the full transcript.
Transcripts from shooting guards Scotty Hopson and Skylar McBee will follow today or tomorrow, but for now, here’s my conversation with Pearl.
Q: Have you and this team moved on from the blowout loss at Vanderbilt?
PEARL: “We put it behind us real quick. We didn’t practice yesterday, because we got home about three o’clock in the morning on Wednesday morning, And we practiced on Sunday. I just felt like we needed a day off. I thought the guys came in today, and their batteries were charged. We had an excellent practice with good preparation. I don’t have to get these guys up to play Kentucky at Kentucky, you know what I mean? It speaks for itself. Not many players, not many coaches get opportunities to play teams like this in venues like this, with College Gameday being there. It’s what you put up with the entire season for. We understand the quality of the opponent. We understand the task at hand. It’s going to take something special, but we’re excited about it.”
Q: Former UT and NBA legend Bernard King seemed to give you guys a lift during and after Thursday’s practice. What has his presence the past couple of years meant to you and the program?
PEARL: “Bernard is amazing. He has come to the rescue many, many times. He’s been around, obviously, a great deal the past couple of years. Fortunately, he’s got a very successful business, and he’s here in this region on business. He always stops by. He reminded our guys just how special this rivalry is.
“He is not a fair weather guy. He’s not. Bernard will probably text me more after losses in after wins with some positive reinforcement and things along those lines.”
Q: What did you and your team learn from that big loss at Vanderbilt?
PEARL: “The Vanderbilt game is over. We didn’t watch the game. There wasn’t anything to watch. I learned some things from it, and I taught them from it, but you’ve got to move on quickly to a team like Kentucky and don’t dwell on the negatives. We’ve got to play defense without fouling, and we got to play better early. That’s real key, and we know that going in. That’s the key to having success on the road.”
Q: Do you have an update on senior forward Wayne Chism, who missed today’s practice with what looks like an ankle injury?
PEARL: “Wayne got the Dwight Freeney treatment. He’s really been working hard on his rehab. Wayne hurt his ankle at Vanderbilt, and we did not know it until we got back. He felt it, but because he had the tape on so tight, he didn’t really experience any pain or swelling until after the game. He took his shoe off, and the thing just blew up on him. We expect him to play Saturday, but we don’t expect him to practice Friday. He may not practice at all until we play.”
Q: Your team has struggled mightily sometimes on the road this season. What can be done to correct that?
PEARL: “You can’t allow the opponents elevated play to affect you. Their play gets elevated in front of sellout crowds, and in front of certain environments. The we did some things ostensibly to really put ourselves behind the eight ball early, that we can’t do, and that we won’t do in the future.”
Q: Did you or your staff see anything from the film of South Carolina’s stunning win over Kentucky earlier this season that could help you Saturday night?
PEARL: “You draw some things, but no. I think at the time Kentucky played South Carolina, it was almost a little bit like when Kansas came here. At some point, there was going to be a little bit of a letdown. Them being my number one had nothing to do with it. Obviously, Devan Downey is a very unique, special player, and he did some unique, special things to Kentucky that nobody else can do, conventionally speaking.
“You learn something from all tapes, but part of playing Kentucky, you can’t control. If Kentucky a scoring inside and out, they’re hard to beat. If they get a lot of transition and a lot of fast-breaking things, everything’s on SportsCenter. Everything’s a highlight-reel. They are just spectacular in transition. They’re also the number one rebounding team in the country, so you’ve got to keep them off the offensive boards.”
Q: Junior college point guard transfer Melvin Goins has understandably become known for his defensive prowess, but he’s had moments — especially the Vanderbilt game — where he showed glimpses of offensive promise. What are your offensive expectations for Goins?
PEARL: “His role offensively is to do some of the things he did against Vanderbilt. Only certain guys can make tough 2s. Only certain guys can get into the lane and traffic and make a tough shot, and you need guys like that at times. Bobby Maze has done it. You need that from your point guard. We need more of that from Scotty. You see JP doing it. I see Melvin being able to do that. Athletically, with his strength and his quickness, he doesn’t get overwhelmed by anybody. I think Melvin is playing with confidence. He’s a factor on the floor, and I think he’s still learning what we’re doing right now.
“Melvin would have been the beneficiary of an up-tempo situation. He would have been the beneficiary of pressure defense and things like that. That’s part of the reason why he came here, and obviously were not playing that way, because the lack of depth.”
Q: Speaking of that lack of depth, what challenges are still presented from that situation?
PEARL: “When you look out here, and you watch us practice, and you start counting bodies, you say, ‘Wow, that’s a different looking practice for a team that’s going to be playing the No. 2 ranked team in the country.’ There’s a fine line for us. And yet still, we feel like we can compete and go play.
“But if we have another outing like Vanderbilt, it will be another outing like Vanderbilt.”
Q: Goins seems to really be getting after it every day, even on the practice floor. Do you think his brief January suspension changed his approach or work ethic?
PEARL: “I think the thing about it is just when you miss a few games, for any reason, and then you start to look at the season and say, ‘Wow, there’s only a few of these left.’ Therefore, you don’t take practices off, you don’t take possessions off, and you just appreciate more the opportunity to play one, for whatever reason, that opportunity is taken away from you. I think that’s one of the things about the team in the sense that when the roster got adjusted, there were a lot of guys like Kenny, like Renaldo or like Steven Pearl or Josh Bone or Skylar McBee that weren’t playing a lot, and now they’re playing more — a lot more for some of them — and so they’re excited in February still about playing, regardless of how we’re up against it as far as our numbers are concerned.
“We are excited about playing. That doesn’t always carry us. It didn’t carry us at Georgia. It didn’t carry us at Vanderbilt.”
Q: How does this Kentucky team compare to John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers from 2007-08 season? That team also had a handful of NBA players, but you went to the FedExForum and beat them to claim UT’s first ever No. 1 national ranking.
PEARL: “This is a much more physically imposing team. This is the biggest team in the country, along with Connecticut. They block a gazillion, bazillion shots. They lead the nation in rebounding. This is a team that’s got four players right now that are ranked in an NBA mock draft anywhere from 1 to 20. That means they have four, maybe five first-round draft picks. There were not five first-round draft picks on that Memphis team. There was a Derrick Rose, and there were some really terrific players, but this team is much more talented then that Memphis team was.”
“I think if (freshman Eric) Bledsoe is on a different team, people are talking about him being the best point guard in the league. (DeMarcus) Cousins is as physically imposing a center as I think this league has seen as a freshman in a long time. I don’t know that there is a more physically talented, imposing guy. I don’t know what the numbers say, but he’s done a terrific job. They’ve got a terrific one-two punch in the (post with Cousins and Patrick Patterson).”
Q: Without getting too specific in regards to Saturday’s game plan, what are some keys in your Kentucky scouting report? From the outside looking in, it seems like you could focus on any one of several players — though it also seems Cousins, Patterson and freshman point guard John Wall stand out the most.
PEARL: “I think the biggest thing right now is we have got to focus on how we play. We’ve got to focus on what we do, and how we do it. If you get focused too much on the opponent, then you stop doing well what you do well. We did not go to Vanderbilt and do what we do well, and therefore we had no chance to win, so I’ve got to focus (on us).
“A lot of times in certain preparations, someone will be the focus of a scout. Devan Downey will be the focus of a scout, or Tasmin Mitchell will be the focus of a scout, and the rest of it takes care of itself. But we’ve got to focus on what we do, and what we do well, in order to put that on the floor and give ourselves a chance to win.”
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