The last few months have been miserable for Tennessee's basketball program off the court. On it, though, things couldn't be going much better for the Volunteers.
Wednesday's 77-72 victory over Virginia Commonwealth raised Tennessee's record to 4-0 and propelled Bruce Pearl's squad into Friday's Preseason NIT title game against No. 7 Villanova at Madison Square Garden.
The situation couldn't be any more rewarding for Pearl, who was disciplined earlier this month for violating NCAA recruiting rules and misleading investigators. The SEC has suspended Pearl for the first eight games of the conference season, and Tennessee has self-imposed sanctions that include docking Pearl's pay by $1.5 million over the next five years.
None of the potential distractions, though, seem to be affecting the Volunteers.
"You probably won't believe this," Pearl told reporters Wednesday, "but these guys are so insulated about what's going on off the floor. I'm so on them about basketball and preparation, there's no time for that. We have work to do to be a good basketball team."
No. 24 Tennessee is far from a finished product. All four of its wins have come against unranked teams from non-Big Six conferences. But that's not to say there aren't plenty of reasons for optimism. Freshman Tobias Harris leads the Vols with a 16-point scoring average and forward Brian Williams has been a beast in the paint, where he pulled down 13 rebounds Wednesday.
Then there's standout point guard Scotty Hopson, who has been Tennessee's vocal leader throughout these last few months. Hopson scored 18 points and grabbed 11 boards against VCU and is hoping for a repeat performance against Villanova.
Whatever happens with Pearl – he could be penalized further by the NCAA – Hopson vows that Tennessee will maintain its focus.
"We're student-athletes," he told reporters Wednesday. "We'll stick to doing that."
(Last week's rank in parenthesis.)
1. Kentucky (4-1) – Freshman point guard Brandon Knight is struggling. (1)
2. Florida (4-1) – Billy Donovan said the Gators "have a long way to go" to be considered an elite team. (2)
3. Tennessee (4-0) – Scotty Hopson came up huge in the Big Apple. (3)
5. Georgia (3-1) – This team will be different once Trey Thompkins is healthy. (5)
6. Mississippi State (3-0) – Ravern Johnson is averaging 25.3 points. (6)
7. Ole Miss (3-1) – The Rebels lost a tough one to Dayton in overtime. (7)
8. South Carolina (3-1) – Talk about balance … six players average between eight and 12 points. (10)
9. Arkansas (3-0) – Marshawn Powell has missed the last two games with a broken foot. (9)
10. Alabama (1-3) – There haven't been many bright spots for the Crimson Tide. (8)
Terrence Jones, Kentucky – Where would the Wildcats be without the 6-foot-9 Portland native, who has been the country's top-performing freshman thus far? Jones is averaging 21.2 points after six games and is pulling down 10.2 rebounds per contest. He's shooting 50 percent from the field and has scored 24 points or more on three occasions.
Rick Stansbury's scheduling – The Bulldogs won't play an opponent from a Big Six conference until Dec. 18, and that's just fine with Stansbury, who worked his schedule around the return of Renardo Sidney. Sidney was suspended for the first nine games of the season by the NCAA for accepting improper benefits while he was in high school. Mississippi State has already defeated Tennessee State, Appalachian State and Detroit and must now play Troy, Florida Atlantic, East Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T, Nicholls State and Alabama State before Sidney makes his debut at Virginia Tech on Dec. 18.
Travis Leslie, Georgia – The Bulldogs' 6-foot-4 guard has played well in the absence of Trey Thompkins. Leslie entered Thursday's game against Notre Dame averaging 18 points while shooting 52.6 percent from the field.
Vanderbilt – The Commodores' lone loss of the season was a three-point setback against West Virginia in Puerto Rico, and they rebounded from that defeat nicely with a win over North Carolina the following night. This may be Kevin Stallings' best team since the days of Matt Freije, although upcoming games against Appalachian State (Saturday) and Western Kentucky (Wednesday) won't be easy.
Alabama – The Crimson Tide had a miserable trip to the Virgin Islands. Losing to Seton Hall (when it still had Jeremy Hazell) was understandable. But dropping games to Iowa (the worst team in the Big Ten) and St. Peter's is just flat out inexcusable for a team that features veteran standouts such as JaMychal Green and Senario Hillman.
John Jenkins from 3-point range – Percentage-wise, Vanderbilt's long range specialist is off to a rough start. Jenkins is averaging 19.4 points, but the sophomore is making just 31.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Last season Jenkins connected on 48.3 percent of his 3-pointers.
Kentucky's post players – Boy oh boy, could the Wildcats use Enes Kanter in the paint. Josh Harrellson (25 minutes) and Eloy Vargas (19) each saw a considerable amount of playing time in Wednesday's loss to Connecticut, yet they combined to score just six points (all by Vargas). Granted, Harrellson and Vargas aren't expected to score a lot, but you'd think they could produce more than that. To their credit, Harrellson and Vargas each snared six rebounds and blocked two shots.
Auburn – The Tigers are 1-3, and it's not as if their losses have come against top-tier opponents. After falling to UNC-Asheville in its season-opener, Tony Barbee's squad fell 78-69 to Samford and 61-54 against Campbell. This could be one of the worst teams the SEC has seen in years.
LSU's victory over Centenary on Wednesday marked the 200th career win for Tigers coach Trent Johnson … Florida's Kenny Boynton is shooting 31.2 percent from 3-point range … Gators forward Vernon Macklin has been playing with tendinitis and pain in his right knee … Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor, a preseason All-SEC pick, left Wednesday's game against Grambling State after being hit in the eye in the first half. Taylor, who had blurry vision, did not return … Things could get worse before they get better for Alabama, which still has non-conference road games against Purdue, Providence and Oklahoma State … Earlier this week Auburn announced the signing of two Top 100 players in No. 74 Cedrick McAfee and No. 87 Willy Kouassi. McAfee is a 6-3 guard and Kouassi is a 6-10 forward … Kentucky needs to get more out of guard Doron Lamb, who combined for just 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting in the final two games of the Maui Invitational … Chris Warren has made just 6-of-24 field goal attempts for Ole Miss and has eight turnovers in his last two games.
THREE TO WATCH South Carolina at Western Kentucky, Saturday – Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn will return to his former school to take on the Hilltoppers, who have one of the better teams in the Sun Belt Conference. Western Kentucky is 3-2 with losses against Minnesota and Davidson.
Florida at Florida State, Sunday – Billy Donovan hasn't been very pleased with the performance of the Gators, who will have their hands full against Chris Singleton and Florida State. The unranked Seminoles are a fringe Top 25 team.
Ole Miss at Miami, Tuesday – Victories in games such as these are imperative if the Rebels – who have already lost to Dayton – have any hopes of making the NCAA tournament.