KNOXVILLE — Bruce Pearl has coached college basketball for more than three decades, and this season's Tennessee Volunteers have "probably" improved more in November than any team he can remember.
To say he's a little surprised that his unblemished Vols (6-0) have already risen to No. 13 in this week's Associated Press poll is an understatement. But that's where they are after last week's win over previously-unbeaten, seventh-ranked Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-Off title game in Madison Square Garden.
UT didn't seem fat and happy Tuesday night, either, when it rolled to an 86-56 win over Middle Tennessee State.
"I'm only surprised because I saw us play not that well in early November," Pearl said moments after his Vols mashed MTSU. "So from that standpoint, was I surprised that we played that well in New York? Yes. Was I surprised this victory was a 30-point win? Yes. We've made so much progress in November.
"Back in the middle of November, I don't know that I could have anticipated us playing this effectively, or perhaps this well together."
All those good feelings beg the equal and opposite potential problem, though.
Is this the best time for the Vols to have nearly a two-week break between games, especially considering their next game is a mammoth Dec. 11 test at third-ranked, unbeaten Pittsburgh?
"Yeah, it's kind of tough," senior forward John Fields said. "Finals week is always tough, especially when your team is in such a good rhythm. I feel like we should keep playing every two or three days."
Then again, though, Fall semester finals week is much easier for Fields — the only graduate student on the team.
"I've only got one exam, and it should be easy," Fields said with a grin. "It's sports law."
The undergraduate students who comprise the rest of roster don't necessarily have it that "easy."
"I wouldn't say [the break] is disappointing," sophomore forward Kenny Hall said. "We've got finals coming up, man. We've got a lot to do with school.
"We've got a lot to do to get ready for Pitt, too. That's a tough team."
The Vols practiced much earlier than normal Wednesday -- they started around 1 p.m. — and coaches and players seemed pleased with the workout. They'll try to practice earlier today, too, but this week is always a flexible one, considering the academic circumstances.
When the Vols do practice, though, Pearl's top priority is addressing Tuesday's lone problem.
"We turned it over too much," the coach said. "And I thought many of our turnovers were just bad decisions about when to take it, when to break it down. We forced it in some traffic situations. We were sloppy."
UT had an uncharacteristically-high 17 turnovers against MTSU, compared to 18 assists.
Senior point guard Melvin Goins had a tidy night with five assist and one turnover in 15 minutes, and junior guard Cameron Tatum had four assists and one turnover in 25 minutes, but many of their teammates struggled. Backup point guard Trae Golden, a promising true freshman, had two assists and three turnovers in 19 minutes. Junior guard Scotty Hopson had no assists and five turnovers in 23 minutes.
"Seventeen turnovers, when you're scoring half the time, that could be maybe eight more baskets," Pearl said. "And when you're rebounding about half of your shots -- we were getting about half of our misses — that's a lot more baskets.
"We need a better assist-to-turnover ratio, a higher shooting percentage, more dribble penetration to find open receivers, more back-cutting, better spacing, scoring out of continuity."
Leading scorer Tobias Harris put in much simpler terms. The versatile, talented freshman forward said, "We're playing pretty good, but we know we can play a whole lot better."
"It would be nice [to play another game sooner]," Harris added. "But at the same time, we kind of need a little rest. We'll continue to practice hard as grow as a team.
"We need to get better in these off-days."
Hall said practice will make UT better.
"We've got to go out there every day and play as hard as we have been," Hall said. "We have to go against each other really hard in practice, getting each other tougher, getting each other better and getting stronger and everything like that.
"Pitt's a very physical team. We have to get ready for that."
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