Pearl set to return to sideline for UT

photo Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl signals to his team during the first half of his team's 72-61 loss to No. 8 Connecticut in their NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)

KNOXVILLE -- Tony Jones didn't need to prove anything to himself.

Yet the University of Tennessee associate head basketball coach won't deny that his eight-game stint leading the Volunteers served as a learning experience.

"I've always been prepared to be a head coach," Jones said after Saturday's 65-60 overtime loss to visiting Alabama, Jones' final game filling in for coach Bruce Pearl, who was suspended by the Southeastern Conference for the first eight games of the league schedule for lying to NCAA investigators.

"I've been doing this for 17 years and I work for one of the best collegiate coaches in the business."

The Vols (15-8, 5-3 SEC) went 5-3 under Jones, dropping a pair of overtime games at home to Florida and Alabama in which UT had chances to win on the final possession of regulation. After losing its first two league games, UT ripped off five wins in a row before Saturday's loss.

"It's going to be different just not seeing [Pearl] over there," reserve guard Skylar McBee said. "But I thought our coaching staff did a great job, and I thought our players did a great job of handling adversity."

On multiple occasions Pearl has praised how Jones and the rest of the staff performed with him watching from home. Jones has been Pearl's right hand for 10 seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and recruited most of UT's current roster. Even then, the players still found the situation unfamiliar, though nobody involved with UT basketball will use Pearl's absence as an excuse.

"It was different," junior wing Cameron Tatum said. "I think after a while we kind of got used to it, but it was different for the first couple of games. Once we got used to the routine of Coach Jones out there running the show and things like that and him calling stuff in practice, I think guys got adjusted to it.

"Guys just knew what we had to do out there on the floor together. Again, the coaches aren't out there on the floor -- it's the players. We're the ones that execute the plays, so it's all up to us."

Said McBee: "That's a hard thing, to lose your head coach in the middle of the season, but I thought we handled it. Coach Pearl's back now, and so we're going to take that and move forward."

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Moving forward, potentially without injured leading scorer Scotty Hopson (sprained ankle) for a little while longer, won't be easy with difficult road games at Kentucky on Tuesday and Florida on Saturday. Nevertheless, Jones will take what he's learned from his eight-game audition back to his normal spot on UT's bench.

"I've learned a lot as it relates to some of the things on the periphery -- dealing with the media, dealing with the officiating," he said. "But I always knew I was capable of handling a job like this."

Contact Patrick Brown at or 901-581-7288.

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