Pearl selling Vols on title talk
Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 3:11 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee Volunteers have replaced five of their top nine scorers from last season with five true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a junior college transfer.
So it’s a rebuilding year, right?
“We’re going to compete for the SEC championship,” coach Bruce Pearl said Tuesday at the team’s annual media day.
That’s a pretty bold statement about a team that Pearl said is the youngest he’s ever coached, but the SEC coach of the year said he likes the depth, athleticism, commitment to training and attitude that his 2008-09 team has.
The Vols won their first outright SEC championship in four decades last season, earned their first No. 1 ranking and finished with a record 31 wins and only five losses thanks to the play of shooting guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.
But Lofton, the SEC’s all-time 3-point shooter and Tennessee’s top scorer last season, and Smith, the Vols’ second top scorer, are gone.
“Who’s responsibility is it going to be to replace Chris and JaJuan?” Pearl said. “You might look at the new guys being your obvious choices … but it’s really going to be Josh Tabb and J.P. Prince and the guys that return that are going to have to handle that.”
Tabb and Prince, both junior guards, join forwards Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith as the guys Pearl is looking to help the young players transition into his high-tempo and aggressive style of play.
“Last year we had Chris and JaJuan, but I stayed in the shadows just learning from those guys, trying to see what it takes to make it to where they are, to put this program where it is now. I think I’m going to be ready to take on a leadership role,” said Tyler Smith, who chose not to enter the NBA draft this year even after averaging 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
With practice opening on Friday, Pearl is looking to his freshmen — Scotty Hopson, Philip Jurick, Emmanuel Negedu, Daniel West and Renaldo Woolridge — and junior college transfer Bobby Maze to determine the roles they will play for his team.
“Since we just came from high school it’s real different, but we’re learning real quickly with help from some of the older guys,” Woolridge said.
There’s an immediate need for a starting point guard as Ramar Smith was dismissed from the team at the end of last season for unspecified problems.
Prince started his first game at the point in the NCAA tournament’s second round after Ramar Smith was benched for poor play.
That doesn’t guarantee him the starter position this season with competition from Maze, who averaged 20.7 points, 6.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game last season for Hutchinson Community College, and West, who led his high school team to a state championship.
Pearl said his players immersed themselves in offseason training.
The new players add additional height to the squad, and the coach expects his team to have a stronger inside presence than its had in recent years.
Because of the inexperience of so many players, the Vols have a long way to go before they get there and before they earn the right to contend for another SEC title.
“We’ve accomplished more in this fall than any team I’ve coached. We’ve made more progress, but we’ve had farther to go than any team I’ve coached,” Pearl said. “I think it’s important to understand what needs to be done in the next two or three weeks as we work to try to get there.”