It would not be quite correct to say there were no expectations on Tennessee coming into this season. However, it would be fair to say that few many people expected the Volunteers to repeat last season's performance of winning 28 games and reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, especially after losing to Division II Indianapolis in an exhibition game. That was followed by the announcement that the SEC was suspending coach Bruce Pearl for the first eight conference games after he admitted to misleading NCAA investigators who were probing his recruiting practices.
Yet Tennessee looks ready to threaten Florida and Kentucky in the SEC East as it is off to a 6-0 start, including beating Villanova in the championship game of the NIT Preseason Tipoff Tournament last week at Madison Square Garden.
"It's just showing how hard work is paying off," freshman forward Tobias Harris said. "We don't really focus on a lot of the media stuff. We just like to go out there and play basketball each night."
Harris is leading the way as he is averaging 16.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 26.8 minutes a game. Junior guard Scotty Hopson has a 16.3/3.8/1.5/26.0 line and Cameron Tatum, another junior guard, is averaging 11.8/3.7/2.7/25.5.
"I had plenty of doubts how good this team could be because of how new it was," Pearl said. "But we worked very hard in the preseason. One of the hardest-working teams I have had. Because there were a lot of opportunities and there was a lot of competition for positions. And this team is beginning to trust each other and beginning to care about each other and rely on each other."
Defense has also played a big role in Tennessee's early success. The Volunteers are eighth in the nation with an 87.3 adjusted defensive efficiency and 35th in effective field-goal percentage allowed with a 42.2 percent mark.
"My teams have historically been 94-feet fast-breaking, which we still have a fast-breaking team that plays full-court pressure defense because we're so long," said Pearl, who has only one player on his 17-man roster under 6 feet in 5'11" senior point guard Melvin Goins. "The closer we get to the basket, the better we look. The farther we get away from the basket, the more quickness becomes an advantage. And so we can't extend too terribly much defensively. We have to use our length and make people score over us."
After routing Middle Tennessee State 86-56 on Tuesday night, the Volunteers won't play for 10 days as they break for finals. However, they await a big challenge when they return to action. They visit Pittsburgh a week from Saturday. Tennessee also plays Oakland, Charlotte, Southern California, Belmont, Tennessee-Martin, Charleston and Memphis before opening SEC play on January 8 against Arkansas.
"We're still learning, still battling," Hopson said. "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. We have to keep working."
Added Pearl: "We have so much in front of us. We have so many tough games ahead. We're picked fourth in the SEC East. So there's some really good teams picked in front of us. And we know that we have to keep on working and see if we can get better."
Pearl also knows things will be difficult for Tennessee once it gets into the conference schedule beyond the caliber of competition. The Volunteers will be without their coach for nearly a month and SEC fans will be rough on them when they play road games. Pearl, not surprisingly, doesn't want to talk about that.
"It would be good for people to write about these kids and how we play," Pearl said. "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."
Few Happy to Stay Put
Year after year everyone waits for Gonzaga coach Mark Few to bolt Spokane for a job in one of the power conference. In fact, his alma mater, Oregon, came hard after him last spring before he decided to stay at Gonzaga and Creighton's Dana Altman was hired to coach the Ducks.
However, Few told Jeffrey Martin of the Houston Chronicle that he is content living in his native Northwest where he can fly fish in the summer and be near his and his wife's families.
"I’ve seen so many people, so many coaches when we all get together as coaches on the road recruiting or on Nike trips with a lot of regret," Few said. "They’ll say, ‘I wish I’d stayed there, I was happy, my family was happy and those were the most fun times I had coaching.’ Because they went somewhere, it blew up or whatever and it was miserable. That was something that I watched."
Few also believes that there are few jobs in the major conferences that would initially afford him to the chance to be competitive on the national level like his at Gonzaga. Usually those schools are in search of a coach because their program needs to be rebuilt.
"There aren't many jobs out there," Few said. "I don't feel I need to put myself in position where I need to rebuild anything."
McDermotts Package Deal for Creighton
Creighton made out pretty well in the deal when it hired Greg McDermott away from Iowa State to be its coach. McDermott brought along his 6'7" son Doug and the forward has been one of the best freshmen in the nation.
McDermott has been the Missouri Valley's Newcomer of the Week in each of the season's first three weeks as he is averaging. He has also scored in double figures in each of his first seven games, the first Creighton player to accomplish that since Benoit Benjamin began his career by scoring 10 or more points in eight straight games in 1984.
"He's doing some good things, and he's certainly exceeded my expectations in what he's been able to do offensively," Greg McDermott told the Omaha News-Herald's Steve Pivovar. "He's gradually making strides defensively, but he has a long ways to go in that area. And he has a lot of room to develop his game offensively. He knows that. My challenge to him is that he doesn't get complacent, and what's happening now is good enough."
McDermott and Harrison Barnes, the nation's top recruit last season who is now at North Carolina, led Ames High School to back-to-back Iowa state championships and a combined 53-0 record the last two seasons. McDermott believes that experience has helped him adjust quickly to playing on the college level.
“We played in front of a lot of fans in high school," McDermott said. “That keeps me from getting rattled when the crowd gets loud or teams start making runs. And I try not to get phased by getting these newcomer awards. We got a lot of national attention at Ames High School, and my coach stressed every day that you can't let that phase you."
Georgetown Facing Early Tests
Georgetown coach John Thompson III differs from his father in at least one way. The younger Thompson isn't as hesitant to schedule a tough non-conference opponent while his father traditionally loaded up on the cupcakes in November and December when he coached the Hoyas.
Georgetown's overtime victory over Missouri on Tuesday night came against a nationally ranked team on what was far from a neutral court in Kansas City. The Hoyas host Utah State on Sunday and also have games at Temple and Memphis before opening Big East play December 29 by visiting Notre Dame.
"In my opinion, you have to look at the personality and composition of your team," Thompson III said. "Some years, you have to have a very difficult schedule and some years you don't. But with this group, I think we need a test every night. I want this team to get the mind-set of, 'Hey, we play 30, 40 or however many games this year, but every game is urgent.'"
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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