KNOXVILLE — They proudly sported goofy haircuts, made fun on each other and took hardly anything seriously.
Essentially, the University of Tennessee men’s basketball players treated Wednesday’s annual preseason media day like any other.
The Volunteers, like Coach Bruce Pearl, decline to discuss specifics of the ongoing NCAA probe into their program. But, like their coach, they said it wouldn’t distract them from building on a season that ended agonizingly close — one possession — from the Final Four.
“Man, the only NCAA I want to hear about is the NCAA tournament,” one player said. “But don’t put my name on that, because Coach Pearl says [take] one game at a time.”
UT’s mantras are common ones associated with adversity — one day at a time, control what you can control, stay focused.
But, unlike others, the Vols can say they’ve conquered adversity several times. It’s been the common denominator of Pearl’s perennially strong program.
“Tennessee basketball is a family,” freshman wing Jordan McRae said. “When we face adversity, we thrive. Look at our past.”
Pearl’s first UT team — a group that went 14-17 the previous season, had no depth and started a 6-foot-4 power forward — burst onto the scene with a 95-78 rout at second-ranked Texas, won the SEC Eastern Division and was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
His second UT team rebounded from a mid-season slump without injured star guard Chris Lofton to become a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. They ultimately advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and only a late-game collapse against talent-rich Ohio State kept them from the program’s first Elite Eight appearance.
Pearl’s third UT team also advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and Lofton led the Vols there without anyone outside a tiny circle knowing he’d been battling testicular cancer.
His fourth UT team was the rare exception. It struggled to replace Lofton and fellow long-range sniper JaJuan Smith of McMinn County, was stunned with a lower-than-expected No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round to Oklahoma State. It still nearly won the SEC tournament and extended a program-record consecutive home win streak to 35 games, though.
Last season was a brilliant bounce-back, though, and in the face of more major obstacles. Nine days after the suspensions of four of their best players, a group of six scholarship players and walk-ons shocked top-ranked Kansas in Thompson-Boling Arena. Three of the four players eventually returned — all except star senior forward Tyler Smith — and the Vols went on to beat second-ranked Kentucky before advancing to their first Elite Eight. They finished just one possession short of the Final Four, though, falling 70-69 to Kansas in a thrilling Midwest Regional final.
“The beauty of this program is we’ve proven we bounce back from adversity,” said point guard Melvin Goins, who has transformed from one of last season’s suspended players to a senior leader.
“We capitalize on adversity. We don’t just get through it,” Goins added. “I think that speaks volumes about the character of the program.”
The Vols spent a vast majority of Wednesday’s two-hour interview session dissecting their strengths and weaknesses on the court. They talked about their challenging schedule. They talked about the challenge of replacing forward Wayne Chism, wing J.P. Prince and point guard Bobby Maze, the senior trio that led them to last season’s Elite Eight. They talked about the addition of one of the most highly touted signing classes in program history.
Only when prodded did they even mention the investigation into Pearl’s alleged recruiting violations and admitted “misleading” of the NCAA. And even then, they said there was no point for them to worry about it.
“We haven’t talked about it, honestly,” McRae said. “Coach Pearl brought us in one time, we talked about what was going on, and that was that.”
Junior wing Cameron Tatum said the team wasn’t putting up a false front.
“I don’t think it’s really so much acting like it doesn’t bother us. It really doesn’t,” Tatum said. “We can’t really control it, so we just go out there and play basketball. That’s all we can do. We’re just here to play basketball. We can’t really worry about things that we can’t control. Us going out there and just playing is kind of our remedy for it.
“We’re not really even thinking about all that. I know I’m not.”
Those answers pleased Pearl, who can’t discuss specifics of the case but maintains the investigation will ultimately prove he runs a “clean program.”
“[Players] shouldn’t worry about it. They’re not part of it,” Pearl said. “They certainly are human, and they hear some of the things that are being said, but you try not to pay attention to any of that stuff. That’s not our focus.
“That stuff’s going to run its course. All we can focus on is getting degrees, doing our jobs in the community and becoming a good basketball team.”
Senior guard Josh Bone said the team’s focus is “better than ever.”
“We got through adversity last year,” Bone said. “That’s just something that keeps us going. As a team, we’re just ready to cut all that out and start to play. We’re just ready for all that to cease and get it going.
“There’s a lot of things out there for us to accomplish. It’s time for everything else to die down and just play ball.”
Only Goins conceded the obvious, though — that this season isn’t just about what UT does on the court, despite most people expecting another championship-contending campaign.
Goins, who dealt with a barrage of off-court questions following his suspension last season, knows that media all over the country will pepper the players all season with talk about the investigation.
How they handle that on the court will be the lasting legacy, though, Goins added.
“The distractions are going to be there,” Goins said. “We just have to sweep those under the rug and just focus on what we have to do, and what we want to get done. At the same time, we just have to stay ready for whatever is thrown at us — you know, whatever questions or whatever may come of it.
“We just have to stay focused. Nobody controls that but us.”