Inside the Vol bubble, it's just basketball

Since news first broke about a pending NCAA investigation, there has been a lot of talking about Tennessee: What will happen to Bruce Pearl?

Will the Vols be penalized even further?

But inside the bubble that is the actual Tennessee basketball program, the message has been brief. Pearl has not wasted a lot of breath explaining what’s going on and what could go on. He hasn’t tried to rally the troops or foster an us-against-the-world mentality.

He’s given his players one simple directive: If you want to change the conversation, give people something else to talk about.

“I made these mistakes and we’re paying the price for it,’’ Pearl said. “I just told our guys, ‘Let’s just keep playing well and then maybe they’ll start talking about how you play instead of the other stuff. If you play well, then it will start. At some point, it starts to wear away.’’

The Vols have heeded their coach’s words well. There are plenty of surprises in this early season -- Connecticut and Louisville’s impressive starts, Butler and Gonzaga’s early struggles.

Put Tennessee’s focus and intestinal fortitude among them.

On Nov. 19, the SEC announced an eight-game suspension for Pearl. On Nov. 24, the Vols beat a very good Virginia Commonwealth team and two days later, topped Villanova.

Tennessee now stands at 6-0, the lone undefeated team in the SEC.

Nothing will entirely quiet the rumbling surrounding Pearl and the Volunteers until the NCAA investigation and subsequent punishment is finalized.

But Tennessee can go a long way in changing the direction of the conversation if it can beat No. 3 Pittsburgh on Saturday in the SEC/Big East Invitational.

“The two best teams I’ve seen on television right now are Duke and Pittsburgh,’’ Pearl said. “I’m not saying they’ll definitely go to the Final Four. We’ve got a long way to go and it’s unfair, I think, to put that on a team in December. But if the Final Four were this weekend, they’d be there.’’

Picked to win the Big East and among the early favorites to make the Final Four, the Panthers have done nothing to discredit the early hype. They have cruised to a 10-0 start, challenged only by Texas in the process.

A typical Jamie Dixon team, Pitt plays scrappy defense and is allowing opponents to score just 60 points per game.

But where the team makes a living -- and where the Vols will have to be especially mindful -- is on the boards. The Panthers are fourth in the nation in rebounds per game (45), but it is their ability to all but obliterate their opponents on the glass that has separated them.

Pitt outrebounds teams by an average of 16.7 per game, far and away the biggest differential in basketball this year (Texas A&M is second, with 13-board margin).

That could spell trouble for a Tennessee team that has been an OK if not terrific shooting team and has coughed up 16 turnovers per game.

“I really like the way we’ve played the last couple of games,’’ Dixon said. “We’ve been focusing on a couple of things and we ended up following up on them -- really taking care of the basketball and cutting down on the turnovers. I think we’re getting back to where normal is for us.’’

Normal, of course, for the Panthers is a standard of excellence almost unparalleled in college basketball these days. Aside from last season, Pittsburgh has won its first 10 games in every season dating back to the 2003-04 season. And in that time, only four schools have more overall wins than the Panthers.

Pearl, whose never had the chance to coach against Dixon, has become a quick admirer after watching Pitt game film.

“None of us coaches does anything original; we all beg, borrow and steal and run the same plays,’’ Pearl said. “But what they do is, they all compliment each other so well, which makes them so hard to guard. All five know what the other five are supposed to do and why. It’s pretty unusual.’’

Nothing, however, is quite as unusual as the circumstances surrounding Tennessee this season. The Volunteers are not alone in playing -- and soaring -- under the shadow of an NCAA investigation. Connecticut is right there beside them, winning and thriving despite waiting for a hammer to drop.

But Jim Calhoun isn’t facing an eight-game suspension like Pearl is. Beginning in January, Pearl will be forced to stay home for eight conference games.

And the Huskies have been able to pass the blame onto a nefarious type, the actions of former manager-turned-agent Josh Nochimson.

Tennessee’s troubles have landed directly at Pearl’s feet.

He’s brought on the attacks himself, has taken the bullet(s) directly and knows more are to come when the NCAA’s allegations and eventual findings come.

For now, though, he’s trying to direct a team and maybe, change the conversation.

“While it’s something that has been addressed and will be addressed again, something very visible, it’s not something we’re dealing with on a daily basis,’’ Pearl said. “It’s not a rallying cry; it’s just not. I did it and all we can do is go forward from here. I’ve played games on television already. It’s been discussed. Do we keep discussing it every game? Eventually I think you just talk about the games.’’