Sat Nov 27 12:00pm EST
NEW YORK — The first on-court, eyebrow-curling result of Tennessee's season came 18 days ago, when the 23rd-ranked Volunteers lost an exhibition game against D-II Indianapolis.
The second came Friday night.
Exhibition results are largely meaningless, but amid the controversy surrounding Bruce Pearl's job, many rightfully speculated how focused his team was after losing that game — by 15 points. However, Tennessee's 10-point win over Villanova in the NIT championship game, improving to 5-0 in the process, obviously takes precedent as the most relevant score of this season for Pearl and Co.
Who had the Vols starting off like this? Group looks good. Group looks like it's growing. Group may have an emerging double-threat at the forward position with Tobias Harris looking and playing very nicely alongside Scotty Hopson.
Pearl's team has proved itself worthy of not only a big bump up in the rankings, but also being a talking point beyond the penalties, suspensions and finger-wagging directed at Pearl for the better part of the past four months.
And make no mistake: That still lingers with this team.
If Pearl is continually bothered or uncomfortable with the pressure and uncertainty around him (which remains all his doing and all his fault), he doesn't show it during the game. Always in an orange-colored tie, the coach never sits, and remains as intense and invested as ever. The occasional boos and insults tossed his way in the Garden Wednesday and Friday were nothing compared to what the coach and his team will endure in harsher, local SEC environments later in the year.
After the game is over, there is no denying all the players are ready for the questions and OK with acknowledging what this year is really about: just win, don't rock the boat and deal with Pearl's eight-game SEC suspension when it comes.
"We had a road bump at the beginning of the year in our exhibition season, so that was a good wake-up call," Steven Pearl, Bruce's son, said. "This game definitely opened our eyes that we're a good basketball team and we can play anyone in the country."
What does it say that Pearl was on the floor — with backup point guard Skylar McBee — for Tennessee as the Vols held a six-point lead with less than five minutes to go? It says his dad is winning with a lot of combinations that don't look like winning ones on paper.
"I have an expectation for myself to be in there at the end," Pearl said. "Obviously it hasn't happened that much, so I can't be mad at people for thinking, Why is he in the game right now? But I was in there for defensive purposes."
Take this into account as well: This team isn't completely healthy, making its undefeated November all the more impressive and unexpected. Its starting point guard, Melvin Goins, toughed out two games in Manhattan; Goins has been hurting with a left oblique muscle strain and a deep contusion. Once the game is over: immediate ice applied and wrapped.
Goins sat out a couple games already this season but insisted on playing this week. He admitted he was hurting a lot in the Vols' 77-72 win over VCU Wednesday night.
After that game, he said, "That's a great ball club. For us to hold them under their normal shooting percentages is great for us. I think we grew today as a team on the defensive end."
Goins' team proved his words true after beating Villanova and holding Corey Fisher to just three points in 30 minutes. There was some bravado from this team after it walked off the Madison Square Garden floor (Steven Pearl was the one cradling the championship trophy, a huge, goofy smile on his face) and into the bowels of the arena.
"Now they know!" Cameron Tatum shouted. "National!"
Tatum was the one who buried two late 3-pointers that Villanova coach Jay Wright referred to as "the dagger." (We appreciate that, Jay.)
You look all over the court, Tennessee is having a ball. There is not a problem to be seen right now, in terms of basketball play and execution. Off the court, Pearl used the word "fun" to depict his team's trip to New York. And he waxed about how much he enjoyed scouting VCU.
"They do such great stuff in transition," he said. "With ball screen stuff, it gave me an opportunity to really do some teaching."
Pearl's eager to share how much he enjoys just the basic coaching principles with this team. It will likely be a point of emphasis in many a post-game presser for him this season.
He also wants to shower his players with praise as often as possible, like he did for Harris, noting he sank his first five shots against VCU in the Garden (Harris is a local kid). Pearl said his freshman gave Tennessee the boost it needed to keep VCU from going on a run.
With all that's surrounded the embattled coach, the program, the players, this group hasn't lost its swagger. It's evident in the hairstyles alone. Hopson (above, right) has the ‘90s high-top fade; Renaldo Woolridge (AKA, Swiperboy) has gone with the Mohawk since the summer, when the hair was originally dyed orange. Now it's back to black, a star is stitched into his follicles. He calls the look the Volstar.
Not any group could pull this off. Perhaps it's because Pearl, out of necessity, is going with a 10-man rotation right now; everybody's happy when the team's winning and most are getting minutes. But nevertheless, the team has pulled off winning, staying loose, being happy and not letting Pearl's eventual eight-game SEC suspension affect them. Given how much pressure comes with winning in college basketball now, that's pretty remarkable.