BRISTOL, Conn. -- Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl declined to take a tour of ESPN on Friday afternoon, choosing to stay back at the team hotel.
But for the first time in four games he doesn’t have to stay there once the game tips off. Pearl is coaching the Volunteers on Saturday against Connecticut at Hartford’s XL Center due to a quirk in his eight-game SEC suspension. The discipline handed down by SEC commissioner Mike Slive is for SEC games only since that is his jurisdiction. The nonconference game against the eighth-ranked Huskies fell in the middle of the SEC schedule.
Late Tuesday night, after the Vols had beaten Georgia in Athens on a last-second putback from Brian Williams, Pearl told ESPN.com by phone from his Knoxville home that nothing will change once he’s on the sideline for the 2 p.m. ET game against UConn.
And that’s exactly the mantra the players are proclaiming in advance.
“I don’t think it will be different at all, no matter who the head coach is,’’ Williams said Friday during the team’s tour of ESPN’s campus. “He’s our leader but we have the same common goal. It’s great to have our head coach back.’’
The timing, though, couldn’t be more perfect for Pearl. He doesn’t have to come in as a savior for the team or to bail out his longtime assistant Tony Jones. Jones, who was the acting coach for the first four games of the suspension and will resume the role Wednesday against LSU, won his last two games as head coach after dropping the first two.
The Vols came back to beat Vanderbilt at home last Saturday in Knoxville and then beat UGA on the last-second bucket to give them momentum heading into UConn.
“It’s definitely a confidence boost,’’ said Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson. “We needed these two wins to get us rolling. We now understand what we have to do to win. [Having Pearl] back is good for us. It takes the pressure off the other coaches and gives us the comfort level that we need.’’
The Vols have been the most enigmatic team in college basketball this season, more so than Virginia Tech, USC or Michigan State. Tennessee, amid its own chaos with Pearl’s suspension due to misleading NCAA investigators on a recruiting violation from two years ago, has experienced an amazing array of highs and lows. Tennessee picked off quality wins over Missouri State and VCU, then beat Villanova at Madison Square Garden to win the NIT Season Tip-Off. UT continued its remarkable nonconference ascension by knocking off Pitt at the Consol Energy Arena in downtown Pittsburgh in an SEC-Big East Invitational game.
That was of course followed by losses to Oakland, Charlotte and USC, as well as a one-point escape to Belmont, a six-point win over Tennessee-Martin and a 13-point loss at home to Charleston.
“It was all about intensity and focus,’’ said Tennessee’s Cameron Tatum. “A lot of teams were looking to knock off Tennessee and we had to do a better of job of focusing.’’
The Vols, which did have a defensive look about them in the early-season wins, suddenly were giving up 91 points to Charleston? But then the bizarre 180 of this team continued with a 104-84 smashing of Memphis, only to follow up by losing the first of two Pearl suspended games at Arkansas by three and at home to Florida by six in overtime.
Up next are the Huskies and Kemba Walker. Stop both and the Vols will have the three best nonconference wins any team will have against the Big East this season.
“We’ve been playing great basketball against the better teams and we’ve got to do that Saturday,’’ Williams said. “We’ve built momentum with this two-game winning streak, something we haven’t had in a long time. It’s hard to do that in the SEC East. Now we’ve got momentum going into Saturday.’’