No. 7 UT men still underdogs
Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 5:24 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl insists that if and when his Volunteers lose, it’s going to be because they’re outplayed and not because they don’t have the right attitude.
The Vols (7-0) have heard enough negative talk about the ongoing NCAA investigation into their coaches’ recruiting practices that they still feel like underdogs with a lot to prove — even after wins over top 10 opponents Pittsburgh and Villanova.
“I’ve got a chip on my shoulder and so do they,” Pearl said. “When we get beat it will be because somebody outplays us and not because we’re not ready for them.”
The 83-76 win over the then-No. 3 Panthers on Saturday vaulted Tennessee four spots to No. 7 on Monday, its highest rank since being fifth late in the 2007-08 season. It was Pittsburgh’s first non-conference loss in its home city in nearly six years.
The Vols were picked to finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference’s East Division amid expectations that they’d struggle under the cloud of the NCAA investigation and with losing several key players from last season but are the only undefeated team left in the SEC.
The players say the talk of the investigation doesn’t bother them — except to remind them they still have things to prove. Nothing has really changed on the court yet since Pearl won’t begin his eight-game suspension from conference play mandated by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive until Tennessee’s Jan. 8 trip to Arkansas.
“We’re all family. That’s off-the-court things. If you’re successful on the court, nothing really matters,” Tennessee senior center Brian Williams said. “I think the attention has been coming off all the coaches because we’ve been winning games. That’s what it’s all about.”
Nothing has changed about the way Tennessee has played against elite opponents, either. In Pearl’s 5 1/2 seasons, the Vols are 9-9 against top 10 opponents and have won five of their last seven against the Top 5.
They surprised everyone in January with a win over No. 1 Kansas with just six scholarship players available after four were arrested and suspended from the team. They beat No. 2 Kentucky in February and reached the NCAA regional finals for the first time in March with a win over No. 5 Ohio State.
“Whatever the numbers are, it’s just that we’ve been able to compete with them and they’re on the schedule. Those are the two things that you want to do,” Pearl said. “Our guys came here to play against that schedule. Our fans want to see us against that schedule. I’m pleased that we’re in the position that we’re in, and this team’s got a chance to be good.”
The Vols are hitting 46.6 percent of their shots, using strong half-court defense to limit opponents to 36.8 percent shooting and outrebounding teams by 8.3 boards a game.
But the don’t appear to be letting their success go to their heads.
The Vols returned immediately to practice the day after their win against Pittsburgh to prepare for Tuesday’s meeting with Oakland, another team with an underdog mentality after a one-point loss at Michigan State.
Junior guard Scotty Hopson, who had a career-high 27 points against Pittsburgh and was named SEC player of the week Monday, said the team has played well this season because they’ve prepared well in practice.
“We’re just keeping focused and handling that success and always understanding where we’re at as a team and know that we’ve beaten good teams, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Hopson said. “I think this team has not even reached its boiling point of how far we can get and how good we can be. We want to play our best basketball in March and right now we’re just focusing on getting better. It’s a process.”