Wiedmer: As coach sits, can UT win?

Wiedmer: As coach sits, can UT win?

January 8th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

The interview first aired on New Year's Eve, roughly an hour before Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers suffered their most embarrassing loss of the basketball season, a 91-78 clunker against visiting College of Charleston.

Sitting before CBS analyst Seth Davis as they discussed his NCAA troubles for lying about a secondary recruiting violation, Pearl heard Davis ask if the coach understood why some might say of him, "That man is a liar and a cheat."

Obviously shaken, Pearl said nothing for a few moments. Then he replied, "Is there a difference in being a liar and not telling the truth?"

Starting today at Arkansas, we'll begin to find out if there's a difference in the Vols with Pearl on the sideline or not in the building.

For the first eight Southeastern Conference games, beginning with the Razorbacks, Pearl will serve a league-mandated suspension that will keep him completely away from his team and coaching staff -- and presumably out of all contact with them -- for two hours before and two hours after each contest.

That means he'll remain in a hotel on the road and away from Thompson-Boling Arena for home games.

Not that he thinks much will change, other than his oft-repeated assessment that "we'll be a man down."

Otherwise, he said he would deliver "the same speech I give every Friday night," and come today, "I'll try to stay as invisible as possible."

But can that possibly be a good thing for the Vols, who have shown more personalities than Sybil so far this season?

Can a team that has looked like a Final Four contender in early victories over Villanova and Pittsburgh, as well as Wednesday's 104-84 rout of Memphis, but also played like an NIT wannabe in losing head-scratchers to Oakland, Charlotte and Southern Cal possibly benefit from the eight-game suspension of its head coach?

"We've been our own worst enemy at times," Pearl admitted after the Memphis game.

But if that's true, how can his absence help matters? Moreover, for a coach who freely admits, "I could lose my job" over his NCAA issues, will the Vols' record in these eight games help or hurt Pearl's future?

For instance, let's say UT goes 7-1 in those contests with associate head coach Tony Jones calling the shots, but stumbles down the stretch with Pearl back on the bench. Do school administrators decide to appease the NCAA and remove him?

Or what if the opposite occurs and the Vols go 2-6 without their coach, finish 7-9 in league play upon his return, fail to win the SEC tournament and miss the NCAA tournament?

In that scenario, does the Big Orange Nation turn on Pearl and push for a new beginning?

For Pearl's long-term future, a 5-3 or 4-4 record might be best, followed by a strong enough February to lock up an NCAA berth. Let that be followed by another deep run into March and all will be forgiven as long as the NCAA is in a forgiving mood, though that appears quite uncertain at the moment.

Of course, if Pearl ever had a team capable of winning the SEC tourney in order to land an NCAA berty, this one would appear to be it, its current 10-man rotation perfectly suited to win four games in four days or three in three, whichever is needed.

All that is far away today, however. When the Vols tip it off just after 1:30 p.m. EST against the Razorbacks, it's all about this game and this game only. Then Florida only on Tuesday and Vanderbilt only next Saturday.

"I think there will be more of a team concept among the coaches," UT leading scorer Scotty Hopson said earlier this week. "Coach Pearl is a loud guy. All the other coaches are kind of in the background. Now Coach Jones likes to get fired up, too. He's maybe not as charismatic as Bruce, but he'll get fired up. But I think we'll hear from all of them. I think it's going to be fine."

In a weakened SEC, especially with five of those eight games against the hapless SEC West and only one road game against the East (Georgia), maybe it will be fine. Tennessee could conceivably sweep those contests with no coach.

But either way, we're about to find out if Pearl's lying to the NCAA will cheat the Vols out of an SEC championship season. And if it does, will that make a difference regarding his future in Knoxville?