CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl left the court alone, ahead of his players and assistants, who were still lingering after an absolute embarrassment of an afternoon. He headed into the dark tunnel, fans hovering above, some dressed in UT orange.
No one heckled. No one cheered.
No one – not his boss, not his players, not the fans – knows exactly how to react to Bruce Pearl right now.
The man who led the school to six consecutive NCAA tournaments, to the Elite Eight just one year ago, might have been taking his final walk off the court for Tennessee.
His program is due in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions in June for 10 alleged violations, including a charge that Pearl lied to NCAA investigators. His boss, athletic director Mike Hamilton, made the poorly timed announcement Wednesday that Pearl might be finished in Knoxville after this season.
If Pearl's exit Friday afternoon at Time Warner Cable Arena turns out to be his last as a Volunteer, Michigan's 75-45 thumping could not have been a more hideous capper to an ugly mess.
"When you get beat 42-16 in a half of basketball," Pearl said, "you didn't play with heart."
Tennessee showed zero interest in defense in the second half. Possession after possession, the Wolverines drove to the rim at will, grabbed offensive rebounds for putbacks and drilled uncontested 3-pointers. The defense was so soft, Michigan shot just one free throw the entire game – and still won by 30. Offensively, Tennessee wasn't much better, shooting 26 percent in the second half.
"We did a terrible job of trying to cover them," Tennessee freshman forward Tobias Harris said, "… and basically just quit."
The players said Hamilton's comments became a distraction, but also said they shouldn't have been a factor once they stepped on the court.
"Certainly when the kids find out there may be a chance you might not be back, and you hear that for the first time, it gets you," Pearl said. "I know it's on Mike's heart, too. And he's apologized for saying that. But don't put the loss on that."
Pearl spent his postgame news conference trumpeting graduation rates, home attendance, community relations and three Sweet 16 appearances. He sounded like a man pleading to keep his job but unsure whether that's even possible at this point, unclear of the next step.
"My goal and my desire is to be the head coach at Tennessee next year, and for a long time," he said.
Then he left, back out into uncertainty.
- Bruce Pearl