So far, Tennessee hasn’t shown evidence of being distracted by the NCAA investigation into coach Bruce Pearl’s recruiting practices.
After the Southeastern Conference came down with its punishment, the No. 24 Volunteers hope they can continue to keep their focus, especially given the way their next opponent takes advantage of sloppy play.
In Tennessee’s first game since the SEC announced it was suspending Pearl for the first eight conference games, it will take on Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday night in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
“We’re just worried about basketball. Whoever is going to be the coach, we’re going to go out there and play hard for them,” junior guard Cameron Tatum said. “I think our team has responded well to it, and like I said, we really just want to get on the court and go and play.”
The SEC announced its punishment Friday after Pearl admitted that he misled investigators regarding photos taken of him and recruit Aaron Craft when Pearl improperly hosted Craft at his home in 2008. Tennessee also revealed that Pearl and his staff made excessive calls to recruits.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive said he considered suspending Pearl for the entire slate of SEC games as well as punishing his assistants, but that he took Pearl’s admission into account.
“The fact that he owned up to what he had done, owned up to the underlying violations, I felt half of the conference season was an appropriate matter,” Slive said.
While Pearl and the Volunteers may be eager to put this mess behind them, the NCAA may impose additional sanctions next month, when it’s expected to release its findings.
“I’m hoping the worst is over, but I can’t be confident about anything,” Pearl said Tuesday. “I let a lot of people down. I’ve always set a very high standard for myself and I didn’t live up to it.”
Two days before the SEC announcement, Tennessee (3-0) held off Missouri State 60-56 in the second round of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
The Volunteers nearly blew a seven-point lead with 27.9 seconds left, but after Missouri State cut the lead to 58-56, Tennessee freshman Trae Golden hit a pair of free throws to seal the win.
Tobias Harris scored 15 points while Tatum and Scotty Hopson each added 12. Golden made his first collegiate start in place of point guard Melvin Goins, who missed the game with a side injury. It’s uncertain if he’ll be ready to go Wednesday.
Tennessee is especially eager to get Goins back as it prepares to face an opponent that has frustrated teams with its full-court press. The Vols also play an up-tempo style.
“This game should be fun from a player’s standpoint, from the fans’ standpoint, but I’m not sure about a coach’s standpoint,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We’ll see about that.”
VCU (3-0) defeated Wake Forest 90-69 in the second round of the tournament last Tuesday, forcing the Demon Deacons into 23 turnovers - 15 in the second half.
“That’s how we play,” Smart said. “We press every game. We’ve got three or four different presses that we use. It comes down to these guys really wanting to get after it and get out there and play with energy for 94 feet. If you ask them, I think it’s a fun style of play.”
Bradford Burgess finished with 25 points and eight rebounds while Joey Rodriguez had 18 points and six assists. Rodriguez is averaging a team-high 18.3 points while shooting 48 percent from 3-point range.
The Rams haven’t started 4-0 since they won their first five games of the 1993-94 season. Tennessee leads the all-time series 3-0, last winning 92-78 in 1991.