Tennessee retools, reloads and aims for the top of the SEC

Florida and Kentucky won't drop from SEC East contention anytime soon.

But a conference companion of these two premier, established programs passed them last season and likely will do so again this season.

Tennessee might find it harder to secure the long-term staying power that Florida and Kentucky have built. Through Florida head coach Billy Donovan's hard work and historic consecutive national titles in 2006 and '07, the Gators became an established national power. Kentucky has produced more than a half-century of consistent winning and fan turnout that can challenge that of any program in the country for supremacy.

Tennessee, meanwhile, has had to be both creative and resourceful in putting together its program. That it has found success doing so was evident during the Old Spice Classic tournament at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., two weeks ago. The Vols have used high school graduates, redshirt freshmen, junior college transfers and four-year school transfers to become an elite program again.

Although Tennessee lost to Gonzaga in the title game in the Old Spice Classic final, the eighth-ranked Vols are the one team the SEC can count on to reside in the Top 25 throughout the season and be a legitimate threat to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

"What they've done at Tennessee is used the junior college, prep school, transfer and use of redshirt very effectively," said former South Carolina assistant Ken Potosnak, who worked under Dave Odom a year ago but is now scouting in Atlanta. "That has kept them at a high level athletically. Bruce Pearl has used every route over the last few years to find the pieces he needs to fit his system."

But such dependability might not have occurred had the stars not aligned correctly for the Vols.

Tyler Smith, who transferred to Tennessee from Iowa a year ago, decided against declaring for the NBA draft to give the Vols a potential SEC Player of the Year candidate.

Tennessee brought back Arizona transfer and Memphis native J.P. Prince, developed big bodies inside in Wayne Chism and Brian Williams, and continued to be creative in recruiting.

Cameron Tatum received a medical redshirt last season because of a knee injury after seven games. Knowing Tatum was a deft shooter, the Vols knew they needed to add only one more during the offseason. That shooter arrived in the form of Scotty Hopson, from Hopkinsville, Ky., who proved to be a a recruiting coup for Tennessee.

Emmanuel Negedu was supposed to play for Arizona, but he got out of his national letter of intent even after Lute Olson initially returned to the Wildcats in the spring. Tennessee beat out Memphis, among others, for Negedu in a late-spring battle.

The Vols waited on Bobby Maze, a onetime Oklahoma guard, as he settled academic issues at Hutchinson Community College (Kan.) after Maryland, which had been considered the likely destination for the Suitland, Md., native, decided against doing so, according to Pearl.

Although, according to Pearl, freshman point Daniel West didn't attain a qualifying ACT score, junior Josh Tabb developed into a viable backup point guard option behind Maze.

Freshman Renaldo Woolridge, son of former 13-year NBA forward Orlando Woolridge and the second cousin of Willis Reed, got off to a fast start this season, though he's cooled down in recent games.

All of this came about in what was supposed to be a transition season after Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith graduated and the team dismissed Duke Crews and Ramar Smith during the offseason. The opening was there for someone else in the SEC to rise up and be the front-runner. But it won't happen, not this year, not with this team that Pearl & Co. have put together.

"This was supposed to be the step-back year," Pearl said. "I think we can be a team that finishes in the upper division of the SEC every year, and of course that means against Florida and Kentucky and a couple of teams in the West. We're not a top-10 program yet, but three straight years in the Top 25 can do that."

The sea change difference with this program was visible at the Old Spice Classic. Tennessee fans packed a section of the Milk House at Disney World, blanketing it in orange. Pearl said that two years ago, when the Vols were in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Madison Square Garden with North Carolina, Gonzaga and Butler, their fan support paled in comparison to what it is now.

A number of things can change the passion for a program. Going to two consecutive Sweet 16s and winning 36 games in the SEC the last three seasons -- the most of any team -- are two ways. It helps when, along the way, you build up a 31-win season (for the most wins in school history), earn a No. 1 ranking (for a week after beating previously undefeated Memphis on the road last season). Add the facilities, high attendance and a passionate fan following to that success -- and Tennessee has become a much-sought destination. It doesn't hurt that Pearl's production has come at a transitional time for the school's football program, and everyone loves a winner.

Pearl's exuberance has been well documented. He has made himself a fixture in the community and has been a vocal supporter of Pat Summitt's national champion Lady Vols program. Despite dealing with a tough offseason during which he got divorced, Pearl has retooled, not rebuilt, quicker than anyone imagined he would.

"We knew recruiting was really important [for this class]," said Tennessee assistant coach Steve Forbes, a former assistant coach to Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M. "We had to get a couple of impact players."

Forbes said the Vols will continue to seek a hybrid recruiting approach. He said the background of the staff -- he was a junior college coach, and Pearl and associate head coach Tony Jones were at the Division II and mid-major level -- allows it to use several options.

Tennessee can't consistently land all the most prized recruits because it competes with Florida and Kentucky, so it has to go a different route from those programs. But there are small victories. Landing Hopson was one of them. Pearl, who is quick to praise the recruiting ability of his top assistants, Jones and Forbes, said that if Kentucky had been a typically dominant Kentucky program the past two seasons instead of undergoing a coaching change, Hopson probably would not be a Vol.

"We could have dropped with the loss of Duke Crews and Ramar Smith, and we're fortunate," Jones said. "Bruce does a great job marketing the program as it relates to visibility. Tennessee is a place that you can win a national championship, and the administration is committed to excellence."

Pearl also is proving his team doesn't have to play the exact same way every season. Of course, he'll push the tempo, but this season the Vols won't be able to make as many 3s and might have to play more of a halfcourt offense with Smith and Chism until players such as Hopson, Tatum and Woolridge make 3s consistently.

"They had a lot of guys who had the ability to make game-winning shots or game-changing shots," said Potosnak. "They are more athletic, longer and now even more intimidating on the defensive end."

The Vols certainly pushed the Zags in the Old Spice Classic title game. They make teams play their best because they play hard until the final whistle. Plenty of intriguing games remain before SEC competition, such as matchups at Temple on Saturday, against Marquette in Nashville on Dec. 16, at Kansas on Jan. 3 and a rematch against Gonzaga in Knoxville on Jan. 7.

"We go play people, anywhere in the country, and that's allowed us to sell our program," Pearl said. "Who said there isn't going to be a dip? It's still early in the season, and we're still not well coached yet. We've got a long way to go, but we're improving."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.