CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The postgame chatter from the players was about playing without heart and quitting in the second half.
If that’s the last impression of the Bruce Pearl era at Tennessee, then it would symbolize a sad and pathetic fall.
Pearl made the third-most popular team in Knoxville relevant during his six-year tenure as head coach. His style of basketball was exciting, his enthusiasm for the Volunteers’ program unbridled and raw, and his ability to recruit high-level basketball players was good enough to put the Vols in the NCAA tournament for a school record six straight times.
But if you were here in Charlotte, it was hard to watch Tennessee's season and the way Pearl’s coaching tenure likely ended Friday. And it was probably painful if you’re a passionate member of a Rocky Talk fan club.
No. 9-seeded Tennessee collapsed at the hands of No. 8 Michigan 75-45 in a game that was more akin to a 16-1 matchup. The Vols only trailed by four at the half, but it turned into a 33-point deficit with 1:53 left against a Michigan team that is still figuring itself out this season.
“Well, we just didn’t play with any heart out there,’’ said Tennessee freshman Tobias Harris, who is expected to test his NBA draft stock this spring for the brief period allowed under NCAA rules. “I mean, Michigan came out and made shots, and we just did a terrible job of trying to cover them. And on the offensive end we rushed too many shots and basically just quit.’’
Pearl didn’t disagree.
“Well, when you get beat 42-16 in a half of basketball, we didn’t play with heart and obviously we were terribly discouraged by the margin, the quality of Michigan’s play, the poorness of our play and we did let down,’’ Pearl said. “We unraveled.’’
The world of Pearl and his assistants was rocked when Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton surprised them by making comments that Pearl’s status wasn’t known after the school had supported Pearl throughout the past year. Tennessee and the SEC had levied serious sanctions against Pearl ($1.5 million docked over a five-year period, a one-year ban from off-campus recruiting, similarly staggered penalties for his assistants coaches and an eight-game SEC suspension for Pearl doled out by commissioner Mike Slive) for misleading NCAA and school investigators about a cookout at his house in 2008 with high school juniors on an unofficial visit.
But the notice of allegations that came from the NCAA in February produced a secondary violation that wasn’t known earlier in the fall. After Pearl had been sanctioned by the school, he and his staff had an unofficial contact with a junior at Oak Hill Academy (Va.). It is a charge that Pearl and his staff say they will contest.
But something has changed with Hamilton and the UT administration over the past week.
Yet, nobody -- the players or Pearl -- was using Hamilton’s comments as a reason for the defeat to upstart Michigan, which now moves on to play top-seed Duke on Sunday in the third round for the right to go to Anaheim in the Sweet 16.
“This game was not indicative of our season in the sense that even when we were struggling down the stretch, we were right there in virtually every game,’’ Pearl said. “The questions are going to be asked whether or not there was a distraction on the team. We tried really hard to have it be just about the basketball and the business at hand.’’
But it’s hard to believe that it was just about the game. Michigan had a surprising season. But the Wolverines had never played that well for a 20-minute stretch. Role player Matt Vogrich didn’t miss a shot (5-of-5) and Evan Smotrycz smoked the Vols for two 3-pointers. The Wolverines had runouts with a Tim Hardaway Jr., flush, and John Beilein looked like even more of a master with his sets.
“I think it’s an understatement to say we were thrilled with our performance,’’ Beilein said.
Pearl couldn’t have been more disappointed.
And now his fate rests with the Tennessee administration. Pearl said he has no timetable to meet with Hamilton, but he is assuming that it will be sometime in the next week. Pearl said he doesn’t have a contract, and he’s hopeful he can still show how much he has meant to the school and what the program has accomplished. He said he’s still confident that he will be the basketball coach when the Vols meet with the Committee on Infractions on June 10-11 in Indianapolis.
“Obviously, this didn’t help and I didn’t help myself in that regard,’’ Pearl said of the 30-point loss. “But I hope that the body of work … I don’t think the people at Tennessee are evaluating me based on whether or not we won or lost this game. I think there’s a lot more to it than that. And I have great trust and faith in our leadership. We have very, very good people in these positions that I hope they still have great confidence in their coach.’’