Bruce Pearl hopes his Tennessee program can finally receive some attention for what it’s doing right on the court instead of for what he’s done wrong off it.
Despite an NCAA investigation involving their embattled coach, the No. 13 Volunteers look to remain undefeated while trying to continue their dominance of visiting Middle Tennessee on Tuesday night.
Most of the focus surrounding Tennessee has been about Pearl’s upcoming suspension for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators. While Pearl will miss the first eight SEC games, the NCAA also is expected to present Tennessee with allegations stemming from its own investigation in December and could hand down additional sanctions.
On the court, those issues have not prevented the Vols from trying to open 6-0 for the first time since 2005-06.
“It would be good for people to write about these kids and how we play,” said Pearl, who needs two wins to reach 450 for his career. “We’re in the season right now. And I think the focus should be shifted to our season and where we’re at. We’ve handled some adversity. Now we have to handle some success. That will be the next step for this basketball team.”
While Pearl has done his best to shelter his team from his off-court troubles, the players have shown there is plenty of talent back from last season’s 28-9 group that reached the regional finals of the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
The Vols moved up 11 spots in this week’s poll after beating then-No. 7 Villanova 78-68 to win the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday at Madison Square Garden.
“I admire the way (Pearl is) handling all of it,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “He’s doing a great job coaching.”
Tournament MVP Scotty Hopson scored 18 points, backcourt mate Cameron Tatum added 17 and freshman forward Tobias Harris contributed 15 with nine rebounds.
The Vols held Villanova’s talented guard trio of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns to 25 points on 7-of-30 shooting.
Tennessee’s opponents are shooting 35.4 percent.
“We worked all year to get to this point,” said Hopson, who along with Harris, is averaging a team-best 15.8 points. “We’re still learning. Still battling. Still just want to win championships, come out and compete every day. It’s a whole process to get to where we want to be. I think this team can still get better. It’s a long way to go.”
The Vols can take the next step in their progression while trying for a ninth consecutive victory over Middle Tennessee (3-3) in their final game until visiting No. 3 Pittsburgh on Dec. 11.
Tennessee won 75-54 in last season’s meeting and has held the Blue Raiders to an average of 61.1 points on 40.5 percent shooting in the last seven matchups.
Senior guard James Washington III averages a team-leading 16.3 points but was held to a season-low eight in an 82-70 win over Evansville on Wednesday. He had 11 points last season against the Vols.
The Blue Raiders have lost 20 straight against Top 25 opponents. The last two defeats have come the previous two seasons versus Tennessee.