Wiedmer: Is Steven Pearl a UT lucky charm?

Wiedmer: Is Steven Pearl a UT lucky charm?

January 30th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Vols T logo

Vols T logo

KNOXVILLE - Steven Pearl has heard the scenario more than once. Much more.

Asked how many times he'd been told his father, Bruce, should again be the Tennessee men's basketball coach, the former Volunteer player replied, "Too many."

But it's what he said next that might most surprise the Big Orange Nation.

"They've still got a coach here," he said at halftime of the Vols' 86-70 win over Ole Miss on Wednesday night. "None of this is fair to Cuonzo [Martin]. It's not fair to the players, either."

He also added, "I don't know that it would ever work out for my father to coach here again."

But when you lose 67-41 at Florida, as the Vols did last weekend, the doubters continue to grow. Especially when ESPN's Joey Brackets has your junior-senior team among the last of the BCS schools to make the NCAA Tournament field.

After all, this was supposed to be the Vols' season to not only make the Big Dance, but also possibly advance deep into the tourney. Yet UT arrived at a half-full Thompson-Boling Arena to face the Rebels having already lost seven times overall, including a 3-3 conference mark.

When you're Martin and you've yet to reach your first NCAA tourney in your third year on the job, that's a pretty big deal. Pretty disturbing one, too.

Especially when Bruce Pearl -- the guy Martin replaced after he was found guilty of lying to the NCAA about minor violations -- reached March Madness every one of his six seasons on the job.

This is not to say Martin's Vols can't halt the "Bring Back Bruce" bandwagon by season's end. Aside from a late-season visit from Florida, the schedule seems to soften a bit from this point forward. Let the Vols finish something along the lines of 13-5 in league play and they would appear to have a superb chance to make the NCAA field, somewhere between a No. 8 and No. 10 seed.

And should that happen, Martin certainly deserves to remain the coach, the roster finally filled with his players instead of Pearl's. Next year might see some slippage, given that senior leaders Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae, plus junior workhorse Jarnell Stokes are all likely to say good-bye. But a year after that, Martin should have a team strongly resembling the disciplined and driven teams he starred on at Purdue.

And when the Vols play as they did against the Rebels, it's tough to find fault with their coach. UT led by 12 at intermission and by 19 points more than 11 minutes into the final half. Yes, feisty Rebels guard Marshall Henderson briefly got Ole Miss within five in the final period as he bombed 3-pointer after 3-pointer, but the Big Orange weathered every Henderson run without the slightest hint of panic.

Not that young Pearl would have necessarily handled it in quite the same way the Vols did.

"If [Henderson] had been playing when I was here, the first time I guarded him there would have been a hard foul," he said, grinning. "It wouldn't have been pretty."

Softening a bit, Pearl added, "I love the way he plays. I just don't like his chit chat with the fans. He backs it up, though."

Indeed, 24 of Henderson's team-high 26 points came on triples that could have counted for four points, so far behind the arc and shot with such difficulty were they.

And, of course, after Henderson's antics inside the Boling Alley last season following his 32-point output, every time he touched the ball brought boos from the crowd.

Yet he wasn't the only one drawing boos on Wednesday. Martin heard his own smattering of boos just before tip-off, the possibility of a third straight trip to the NIT almost as nauseating as the last three football seasons without a bowl bid.

Not that Steven Pearl didn't have a possible solution for fixing the Vols that wouldn't involve returning his dat to the UT bench.

"I came to the Kentucky game last year and we won by 30," said the medical sales rep. "I'm here tonight and we're up by 12. They need to make sure I'm here more often."

With a record like that, it would certainly seem that having at least one Pearl in the Boling Alley for UT games would be better than none.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com