KNOXVILLE — Not that Bruce Pearl necessarily has it in for his former employer. And he certainly shouldn't, because Pearl isn't coaching basketball at Auburn these days only because the University of Tennessee didn't want him anymore.
He's coaching the Tigers because his problems with the NCAA rules pretty much forced the Volunteers' hand into removing him from his Big Orange job at the close of the 2011 season.
But if you're scoring at home, Auburn's 85-63 victory over the Vols inside UT's nearly packed Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon was the Tigers' fifth straight over Tennessee, which never previously happened.
Said Pearl afterward: "That's about as good as we can play."
More important for Auburn fans, he later added: "I would say for the first time this team has reminded me of last year's team."
Ah, last year's Tigers, the surprise party crashers of the NCAA Final Four who were one very, very unfortunate no-call against Virginia from meeting Texas Tech in the 2020 title game.
Yet what should have been a double-dribble against Virginia's Ty Jerome inside the final 10 seconds wasn't called. Seconds later, a shooting foul that sent the Cavaliers' Kyle Guy to the line for three free throws was, and Auburn's dream season was done 40 minutes from competing for college hoops' biggest prize.
And though the Tigers began this season on a 15-game winning streak, they had struggled of late, losing four of their past six, including at home this past Wednesday to Texas A&M.
Or as Pearl said afterward of the potential danger he saw in this game: "Tennessee comes in here having beaten the two best teams in the league, in Kentucky and Florida. Turning it over is important. If you let Rick Barnes run his offense the way he wants to run his offense and you're not disruptive, forget it."
So when this game began, Auburn was incredibly disruptive, as Pearl always coaches his teams to be. The Tigers not only scored 14 points off 11 UT turnovers, they pestered the Vols into shooting just 33% from the floor and 36% from the 3-point line one game after UT shot 52% from the floor and 46% from the 3-point line at Kentucky.
He also threw this line into the mix about the team he used to coach.
"I want Tennessee to win three or four more and get to the (NCAA) tournament," he said. "I knew this one here on the heels of Florida and Kentucky (could help). Get Auburn, win a game or two in the SEC tournament, and they are in. I admire Rick Barnes so much. He's one of the best coaches in the country, and the job he's done with these kids, the improvement of (John) Fulkerson, (Jordan) Bowden."
But then he also said this, an indisputable fact once Lamonte Turner sidelined himself over a bum shoulder in December.
"We talked about it last time: They don't have a true point guard," Pearl said, referencing Auburn's 73-66 come-from-behind home win over the Vols two weeks ago. "J'von McCormick for us, his quickness and his speed was a problem for Tennessee today."
The biggest problem for UT was senior guard Samir Doughty, who torched the Vols for 32 points, making eight of 13 trey tries. But classmate McCormick scored 13, handed out three assists and made off with three steals.
Added Pearl concerning McCormick, who played just 10 minutes a game for that Final Four squad a year ago: "He really competes. When Jared Harper left early and we weren't expecting Jared to leave, we had a decision to make. Do you go get a fifth-year transfer? I decided that because J'von McCormick had done everything right in the locker room, in the classroom, with his teammates, I felt like he earned the keys to the car. So I didn't recruit over his head and trusted him that he could handle it. And he has handled it. He uses his quickness, his speed, his athleticism and made plays defensively. I'm very proud of him."
Maybe all of this will be enough to make Pearl the SEC's men's basketball coach of the year. After twice garnering that honor at UT, he is yet to claim similar hardware at Auburn, despite working miracles at a school that never had reached the Final Four before he arrived. His past NCAA troubles are no doubt partly responsible for that, as is the fact that Auburn reportedly is still being investigated for what happened while former assistant Chuck Person was with the program, because Person was convicted as a result of the FBI sting into money laundering and such.
But that doesn't mean Pearl isn't one of the best coaches in the game or doesn't deserve serious consideration this time around, along with Kentucky coach John Calipari and first-year Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams.
"I told (Pearl) that's the best I've seen them play all year," Barnes said after Saturday's game. "They played about as well as any team we've played all year."
They did indeed, just as they did last year in winning the SEC tournament, then becoming the first team in history to beat basketball bluebloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in a single regional to reach the Final Four.
"This should give us confidence heading into postseason play," Pearl said. "We'll see what we can do with it."
If last year be any indication, the better question may be whether anyone can do anything to stop an Auburn team that's suddenly reminding everyone of last year.