KNOXVILLE—His work rewarded with a victory on Sunday afternoon, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said of his Wildcats’ 64-58 win at Tennessee: “How in the world were we only down seven (29-22) at halftime? We should’ve been down 15 or 18.”
UT fans are probably saying the same thing today. At least they are if they can lift their chins out of their cereal bowls after the latest Big Orange win that wasn’t.
Indeed, how did the 20th ranked Wildcats shoot 29 percent from the floor, 20 percent from the foul line (1 for 5) and 46 percent from the foul line in the opening 20 minutes, yet somehow rally to hand the Vols’ their eighth home loss of the season?
How did UT go from beating Big East beasts (Villanova and Pittsburgh) away from home before Christmas to finishing with five home losses in Southeastern Conference play?
(By the way, it took Pearl until the end of his fourth UT season to lose his eighth home game total.)
Moreover, how has a coach who once seemed to push every right button in a close game now lost three straight at home and six out of nine overall since the start of his Southeastern Conference-mandated suspension over NCAA recruiting violations on Jan. 8?
Finally, how in the world does UT find a way out of this malaise in time to hold off Arkansas — which beat the Vols 68-65 back on Jan. 8 in Fayetteville — in the opening round of the SEC tourney on Thursday evening inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome?
“We’re close,” said Pearl a few minutes after his team missed all three of its second-half 3-pointers, turned it over seven times in the final period (compared to but three before the break) and forced but one steal after intermission.
“We’re close enough to almost finish second in the [SEC East]. Yet we’re far enough away to finish fifth.”
That’s the black and white answer to what UT lost in Sunday’s final 20 minutes. The Big Orange lost a first-round bye to this week’s SEC Tournament. It lost a winning mark in SEC play (going from a possible 9-7 to 8-8). It lost the meager momentum a two-game winning streak might have given it heading into postseason play.
It may even have lost an NCAA bid that seemed certain until the past two weeks.
If you’re shocked by that, consider Pearl’s quote concerning the Vols’ NCAA tourney status: “One time [with the selection committee] it’s your body of work. One time it’s your last 10 games. So it’s a moving target. If it’s your last 10 games, we may have some work to do.”
But the bigger question is Pearl’s work itself. And that has nothing to do with his NCAA troubles. At least not directly.
A week ago it was the odd timeout he called in the final seconds of the Mississippi State home loss, the final one in his bag. He should have called it after State’s free throw with 3.4 seconds to play. Instead he called for it before State shot, which allowed the Bullies to dictate those final ticks of the clock.
On Sunday against the Wildcats it was his reluctance to press — imagine Pearl shunning the press during his first three or four seasons in Knoxville — despite UK basically rotating but six players (two of whom eventually fouled out) and entering the final half with a single timeout left.
Said one UK official, requesting anonymity: “Yeah, we were gassed. We couldn’t believe they didn’t press.”
Indeed, Pearl would have been pressing in warm-ups three years ago against an opponent starting two freshmen guards that hadn’t won an SEC road game all season against a team with a winning record. Especially one that entered the final half seven points down with but a single timeout left to alter play.
In fact, Calipari was so mindful of the need for that final timeout down the stretch that he instructed his team at halftime to accept a “jump ball” anytime it appeared UT might tie a Wildcat up.
“Just hold [the ball] out there for them to get their hands on it, then hold on tight,” Calipari said. “They might get that one, but we’ll get the next one on the alternate possession arrow. We’ll get it every other time and we’ll save our timeout.”
Amazingly, at the end of the game, the Vols having been outscored by 13 over the final 20 minutes and Calipari still had his final timeout.
“To leave second place on the table and not finish with Kentucky is disappointing,” said Pearl. “I do feel it’s a benchmark I should be judged on, and I obviously have not done my job in our rivalry with Kentucky.”
With six seniors playing their final home game against the Cats, with junior Scotty Hopson seemingly out the door to the NBA and freshman Tobias Harris possibly right behind him, with the NCAA yet to announce its judgment on Pearl’s misdeeds, it’s fair to wonder if Pearl will be around to do his job next year.
And if he is, how in the world did that happen?
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...