Wiedmer: Coach Pearl's son has become an invaluable Vol

Wiedmer: Coach Pearl's son has become an invaluable Vol

March 28th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

ST. LOUIS -- The Michigan State Spartans aren't likely to focus a lot of defensive attention on Steven Pearl this afternoon.

The Tennessee junior forward averages less than two points a game. The son of Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl, he hits less than 27 percent from the foul line, hasn't bagged a 3-pointer all season and has gone scoreless in 17 of the 30 games he's played.

Even young Pearl admitted on Saturday afternoon, "I was the go-to guy at West (High School in Knoxville). But you have to be realistic. That's not my role. I'm a defense guy, a rebounding guy. That's why I'm out there."

He almost was never out there through the Vols' first 12 games, averaging right at three minutes a contest. But after Tyler Smith was dismissed from the team after a New Year's Day arrest and three other players suffered lengthy suspensions, Pearl the father dramatically increased the playing opportunities for his son.

In UT's last 24 games, young Pearl has averaged 12.9 minutes and 1.5 rebounds. He's set bone-rattling picks and handed out 18 assists.

But it's what his teammates say about him that should most impress the rest of us.

"He's tough and he's got a really high basketball IQ," senior guard J.P. Prince said. "Steven does all the dirty work that you have to have to win. A lot of people might not appreciate that, but his teammates do."

Added senior forward Wayne Chism: "Little Pearl -- I call him Little Pearl -- is a great defensive player and he's got great heart. He doesn't care if he's playing a 7-footer or a 5-11 guy, he's going to accept the challenge. He's a guy who can guard and rebound. He may not be known as a good shooter or free-throw shooter, but it's all about when Coach puts him out there. Pearl just goes out there for defense. He executes the offensive plays; he gets in the right spots to set great screens. All I can say about Steven Pearl is that we love him."

His dad has always loved him, of course. Loved him when he was coaching Southern Indiana in the Division II title game one year and Steven entered the locker room at halftime "bawling my eyes out," because his father's team trailed by 21 points.

"Naturally, they came back and won," said Steven, who turned down several Division II offers to walk on with the Vols. "I've still got a piece of the net at Dad's house. It's all old and brown now, but I'll never forget that win."

His father finally had to make himself forget that Steven was his son.

"Tony Jones and Pat Summitt came to me and said, 'You really aren't looking at your son the way you should,'" the elder Pearl said. They said, 'Steven's got some Dane Bradshaw in him, the way he can pass and defend and knows the game. He's got some toughness in him."

So "Pops," as Steven calls his father, backed off. He began to let him get on the floor more than during practice. He began to value the 25 pounds his son had added to his 6-foot-5 frame from tireless work in the weightroom.

"Even when he never saw the floor, nobody wanted to be guarded by him in practice," Pops Pearl said. "He can get pretty physical out there."

"Oh, I hated Steven guarding me," Chism said. "Any time he was on me and I started to dribble, he'd either steal it or draw a charge. He'd make me so mad."

Pearl the player said part of this ability to get under other players' skin is hereditary, but not from his dad.

"His uncle Rich Shrigley was a four-year starter at Boston College back in the 1980s," said the elder Pearl. "He was one of the toughest players in the Big East. He became an adjective. Whenever somebody made a really tough play they said that player just delivered a 'Shrigs.' Steven got that size and that toughness."

What he hasn't had thus far is the shooting touch to remain in the game late, mostly because of his free-throw woes. When the hour grows late, Pearl is sent to the bench so no opponent can send him to the foul line.

Still, that hasn't dimmed a father's pride in his oldest son.

"It's been very gratifying to see Steven earn the respect of his peers," Pops said. "He's really become a valuable member of this team."

Bruce's father Bernie has a recurring dream of Little Pearl becoming much more valuable soon.

"I see him hitting the final shot in the final game to win us a national championship," Grandpops Pearl said. "His grandmother would go crazy."

Bruce Pearl did nothing more than smile as his father spoke. But with three No. 1 seeds already out of this tournament and the path suddenly looking golden for UT's first Final Four, if not its first national championship, Grandpops' dream is looking less unlikely by the minute.