Bruce Pearl continues to put Vols on map

PITTSBURGH -- For those who can’t understand the fierce loyalty both the Tennessee fan base and administration have shown Bruce Pearl, let this game serve as your explanation.

Tennessee 83, Pittsburgh 76.

Before Pearl, irrelevant would be an adequate word to describe the Tennessee basketball team.

Save a handful of years under Jerry Green a decade ago and with Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld in the mid-70s, the Volunteers have never been part of the conversation. They were living in their proper place in the school’s sports hierarchy, a distant third to football and Pat Summitt.

With Pearl, you get this: a team that went to its school's first Elite Eight last season, lost three of its core players, fell under the shadow of an NCAA investigation and swirling rumors about its coach, and before January 1, has pummeled the two presumed best teams in the Big East.

And the Vols pummeled them in their own backyard, beating Villanova and its Big Apple-laden roster in New York City, and Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh.

Which just about never happens, by the way.

The Panthers hadn't lost to a nonconference foe in this city in nearly six years and were 141-11 here from 2003 until Saturday afternoon, their fan base so accustomed to winning that the stunned denizens of the Oakland Zoo were left with nothing but anemic taunts about the Volunteers’ hairdos (Justin Bieber for Skylar McBee and ‘Nice fade,’ for Scotty Hopson) as the lead stretched as wide as 21.

Picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, Tennessee instead is the lone undefeated team in the league, standing at 7-0. The Vols are now a remarkable 5-2 in their past seven games against top-5 teams.

Winning offers a blanket defense for just about anything.

And Pearl has the Volunteers winning like they’ve never done before, winning at such a rate it’s helped to ease the pain of the Lane Kiffin debacle, and turned Knoxville into a (men’s) hoops town for now.

“When you win and when you do it consistently, you’re more part of the equation,’’ Pearl said. “We have a chance to make the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight year and that’s never been done before here.’’

Pearl has played the underdog since his banishment from the game, coaxing big wins out of his Vols by reminding them they are underdogs. Against Pitt, in fact, Tennessee was a nine-point 'dog.

But the dog days are gone now.

Tennessee will catapult up the rankings on Monday after this annihilation, and deservedly so.

Jamie Dixon’s record of never getting blown out will stand -- he’s lost by more than 10 points only 15 times in his career -- but only by an endgame effort that did little more than pad the final score.

Make no mistake: the Volunteers owned the Panthers, their offense all but mopping the floor over Pitt’s vaunted defense and their defense making the Panthers look scared. Scared is not a word used about Pittsburgh terribly often.

“They landed the first punch and we didn’t respond well,’’ Brad Wanamaker said. “They were prepared for us. They came out aggressive from the start and we didn’t. We tried to make a run, but they kept making smart plays.’’

Unlike Vols teams of yore, whose athletic ability masked an AAU-like mentality, this team took smart shots. Tennessee shot 56 percent from the floor for the game, drilling 7 of 11 3-pointers. It was the most points (83) scored in regulation by a Pitt opponent since 2006.

And Hopson, the player everyone has been waiting to "arrive" since he came to the Knoxville campus, may have just met his delivery date. The junior couldn’t miss, hitting 10 of 13 from the floor and all three from behind the arc.

When the Panthers threatened to make it even a little bit of a game, closing to eight late in the second half and igniting the crowd, Pearl called timeout.

The Vols came back on the court, put the ball back in Hopson’s hands and he went straight to the hoop for the easy bucket.

The former high school All-American, who has teased with his talent, has been a model of consistency this season, averaging 16.3 ppg and hitting double figures in each of the Vols’ games.

Maybe it’s the hair, a reverse Samson thing. The junior cropped his hair into a 1980s fade this summer when he and his team owned Tennessee’s summer-league competition.

He hasn’t seen fit to cut it yet.

“We’re winning, so I’m keeping it,’’ he said.

But the Vols aren’t just winning with their offense. This team, once known for leading the SEC in scoring has finally put a premium on stopping people. When Pearl first came to Tennessee, he didn’t think he had a choice but to play a pressing style. His status not yet affirmed as a head coach, he couldn’t land the players -- especially the big men -- to change.

As success has come, so too have the players, and Pearl is evolving his style of coaching along with it.

With its length and strength, Tennessee can defend, and with the players Pearl has, it’s not just a 10-second, pat on the back to defense. It’s legit full bore.

Tobias Harris, Brian Williams and company clogged the lane, making it almost impossible for the Panthers to penetrate. When Pitt players did get near the hoop, they looked tentative, their shots altered by the defensive logjam.

“We wanted to see where were at defensively and as a team,’’ Cameron Tatum said. “If we can stop a tough offensive team like Pitt and then come down and score against a tough defensive team, that goes a long way in saying where we might be.’’

Where the Vols might be is right alongside the likes of Connecticut as the biggest surprise team of the early season. Remember the Huskies' big eye-openers came at a neutral court in Maui.

Tennessee has gone straight into the lion’s den and emerged victorious.

Pearl has done this before, of course. His team has built a reputation as a giant killer, establishing the identity in his first year when the Volunteers improbably beat Texas in Austin.

It is what initially endeared him to the masses in Tennessee and what continues to make him beloved there. Last year it was against No. 1 Kansas when the Vols, racked by suspension, were as ragtag as a team could get. Then it was against Kentucky, then No. 2 in the country.

Pearl realizes his team might have more of a bull's-eye on its back, but insisted the Volunteers remain the beggars at the feast. They have never been to a Final Four, his own demarcation for officially arriving, and they’re still coached by a man with a different kind of bull's-eye on his back.

“I’m nobody from nowhere,’’ Pearl said. “C’mon. I’m nobody from nowhere.’’

Except in Tennessee. There he’s definitely a somebody.