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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl ran the gamut of emotions in a one-week span in late summer.
On August 30, Pearl learned prized recruit Ramar Smith, a point guard from Detroit, had cleared the last of several academic hurdles and could enroll in school. But just a week later, Pearl had to dismiss starting center Major Wingate for violating the terms of his reinstatement from a suspension handed down last May.
Vol fans were concerned after the news of Wingate's dismissal broke, but not nearly as much as they might have been had the program been under another coach's watch.
Pearl will find a way to get the job done.
The first thing Pearl did in April 2005 when he took over this downtrodden program was meet with his players. And the first thing he said got their attention.
"Your opponents," Pearl said, "will fear you."
When Pearl told that to the media gathered at his introductory press conference, there were a few laughs. Fear the Vols? It seemed absurd.
No one was laughing after Pearl's declaration became true. Using the aggressive, trapping defense and up-tempo offense he learned at the right hand of Dr. Tom Davis, the former Boston College, Stanford and Iowa coach who's one of the most underrated coaching geniuses since Dr. Naismith hung that first peach basket, Pearl took a ragtag bunch that couldn't even finish about .500 the year before and guided it to the NCAA Tournament.
No one ever took a poll of the Vols' opponents and asked if they were afraid. But one thing was certain -- the Vols weren't. That much was apparent when they went to Texas in early December and scored a shocking upset of the Longhorns. But some observers wondered if that wasn't a fluke. Texas was missing a couple of key players for most of the game, and the 'Horns had just been hammered by Duke a game earlier.
If the Southeastern Conference, and the nation, needed more proof, the Vols provided it. In league play, they won at Kentucky, Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt, places where previous Tennessee teams would have had a hard time not getting blown out, let alone winning.
By time the regular season ended, the Vols had already stamped their Big Dance card.
Pearl enters his second season with considerably more talent than he did a year ago. Whereas last year he had a seven-man rotation, this year, he could legitimately use all 11 players on his roster.
The loss of Wingate might concern others, but not Pearl. He'll elevate freshmen into Wingate's spot and turn up the heat defensively. This is a more talented team than the one that played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, with or without Wingate.
And this season the schedule breaks favorably. The Vols play host to Texas, Memphis, LSU and Alabama and play Oklahoma State in Nashville. Last year, the Vols played all those games on the road, or in the case of Oklahoma State, a neutral site.