Bruce Pearl will surely have 400 wins when Tennessee hosts Gonzaga in January. The Bulldogs just don’t want to see the Volunteers coach reach that milestone against them.
Less than a year after meeting for the first time, these programs will play twice in six weeks and one will suffer its first loss Sunday when No. 9 Gonzaga faces 12th-ranked Tennessee in the Old Spice Classic title game at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Just as Bulldogs coach Mark Few has done over the past decade, Pearl has put his program on the college basketball map in three-plus years at Tennessee (5-0). He’s 82-24 since taking over the Volunteers, reaching at least the second round of the NCAA tournament each season, to bring his career record to 399-108.
Pearl, who spent nine seasons coaching Southern Indiana and four at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is looking to become the sixth-fastest coach to reach 400 wins. His .787 winning percentage is third-best among active coaches behind Few, who is 240-60 (.800), and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (.809).
These programs never met until scheduling games for last season and this season - they’ll face each other again on Jan. 7 in Knoxville - but Sunday’s matchup was not planned. However, they’ve clearly been the best teams at this tournament, with all four of their wins coming by double digits.
Tennessee clearly was the better team last season when it visited the state of Washington for the first time, defeating the Bulldogs 82-72 in Seattle on Dec. 29.
“They’re just so disruptive and opportunistic,” Few said Friday. “They’re so quick with their hands and we didn’t deal with that so well last year.”
Gonzaga (4-0) had 18 turnovers in that loss and again will have to beware Tennessee’s pressure defense, which has forced at least 16 turnovers in every game this season. The Vols can afford to be aggressive defensively because Pearl is comfortable giving plenty of minutes to his reserves.
Only leading scorer Tyler Smith, averaging 18.6 points, and point guard Bobby Maze, averaging 6.2 assists, are playing more than 24.0 minutes per game for Tennessee. All five Gonzaga starters are averaging 24.0 minutes or more.
“Our (starting) five are good, but our 10 are what makes us better,” Pearl said. “We go to the bench and we don’t fall off. That’s what helps in tournament play.”
After taking a 20-point halftime lead and cruising to a 78-64 first-round win over Siena on Thanksgiving, the Vols faced their first ranked opponent of the season Friday and rallied past No. 21 Georgetown 90-78.
Smith had 21 points and Cameron Tatum scored 14 of his 17 in the final 9:07, during which Tennessee outscored the Hoyas 33-13.
“Tyler told me on the bus over, ‘You’d better be ready to shoot,’ ” said Tatum, who went 5-of-6 from 3-point range off the bench. “It was one of those days.”
Smith had a double-double in last year’s matchup with Gonzaga and was one of six Tennessee players to score in double figures.
Bulldogs standout Jeremy Pargo was held to eight points on 1-of-7 shooting in that game, and he’s stepped up his offense in this tournament after a slow start. He’s averaged 13.0 points this week, after scoring a combined 12 points through his first two games.
Pargo is part of a three-guard lineup for Gonzaga, but it was the two forwards who stood out Friday. Josh Heytvelt had 22 points and nine rebounds, and Austin Daye had 17 points and 10 boards in an 81-59 win over Maryland.
“We did everything well and it wore on them,” said Heytvelt, averaging a team-high 15.0 points and shooting 63.2 percent from the field.