Better Volunteers are in ‘deep’
Posted: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 5:16 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl believes that the more the better, which is why he relies on depth each year.
And his approach is finally paying dividends this season.
Tennessee’s bench has been key on both ends of the floor during a modest four-game winning streak in Southeastern Conference play that’s got the Vols tied in the loss column with East Division leader Florida.
“Yes, it’s harder to develop that chemistry in December when you’re playing a lot of people and working on different things, but it keeps guys right and it keeps guys ready,” Pearl said. “I thought our bench play once again was really very, very solid and productive offensively and defensively.”
Lax defense by the Vols in four losses and some narrow non-conference victories in the month of December prompted Pearl to shorten his rotation and take senior center Brian Williams out of the starting lineup.
Since then, Tennessee’s second rotation — Williams, senior guard Josh Bone, sophomore guard Skylar McBee, senior forward Steven Pearl and freshman point guard Trae Golden — have played bigger roles for the Vols (14-7, 4-2), who next travel to Auburn on Thursday.
“A lot of people might second-guess coach’s decision on why we even play the bench, but the last couple of games the bench is the reason we took advantage,” Williams said. “I think our 10 is better than any five in the country.”
Williams has provided the biggest boost off the bench for Tennessee thus far.
Pearl likes starting senior center John Fields, whose volleyball-like swats around the basket provide some energy for the first rotation, and using Williams instead as the first player off the bench.
The Bronx, N.Y., native who is averaging 6.6 points and 7.6 rebounds this season, has maintained his edge on the boards as a backup while boosting his scoring. He’s averaging eight points in the six games since he was moved to the bench compared to 4.3 points in the six games prior.
Williams made an improbable buzzer-beating fadeaway shot off a contested rebound to grab a 59-57 victory against Georgia on Jan. 18, and logged 18 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a 74-57 win at Mississippi on Saturday.
“You bring Brian off the bench and now he’s a very calming influence on the rest of those guys. Plus it keeps him a little bit out of foul trouble as teams try to go in early and establish low-post play,” Bruce Pearl said. “With the exception of not hearing your name in the starting lineups, there are not benefits. I think Brian would rather finish the game than start the game.”
Bone, McBee and Steven Pearl have proven to be some of the Vols’ best defenders recently.
Bruce Pearl credited Bone to helping keep Ole Miss starting point guard Chris Warren in check and his son Steven Pearl for being a strong leader as he serves an eight game suspension from SEC play for lying to the NCAA during an ongoing investigation.
McBee scored 10 key points to help Tennessee erase a 17-point deficit against Vanderbilt for an eventual 67-47 win by the Vols on Jan. 15.
Steven Pearl thinks the chemistry issues of a month ago have been settled and the reserve players are more comfortable now that they know they’ll see regular playing time.
“When we went on our losing streaks, the biggest thing was our bench wasn’t producing,” he said. “I feel like the mixture of Brian being put into the bench rotation has been huge because we have good chemistry. The guys are starting to know they have their roles and they’re starting to feel more secure in their roles and they’re starting to make plays.”
With the Tennessee bench accounting for 26 percent of the Vols’ points and providing a strong presence on defense, the starters can relax a little bit more both on and off the floor.
“It gives us an extra cushion,” starting guard Scotty Hopson said. “Coming out in the game, we know that it gives us a little bit more of a break, a little bit of a chance to get our rest, just knowing that the bench can stay solid while we’re out of the game. Usually when they come in, they give us the extra energy and intensity that we need to get those guys tired that’s in (the other team’s) first rotation.”