KNOXVILLE — Bruce Pearl doesn’t enjoy spending every out-of-town interview, and many in-town interviews, explaining why he misled the NCAA with inaccurate responses when college athletics’ governing body peppered him with questions about his recruiting tactics.
But it’s becoming quickly apparent that Pearl can’t publicly avoid the topic.
When Tennessee’s men’s basketball coach sat down Tuesday with media in New York for interviews about tonight’s NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal against Virginia Commonwealth (7, ESPN2), the topic quickly went where it always goes these days.
Pearl was again asked about the actions that already have led to punishment from the university and the Southeastern Conference, with an NCAA decision expected sometime in the relatively near future.
“I have to deal with this, but I’m hopeful that the attention, the focus will be placed on our teams and the games,” Pearl told reporters Tuesday. “But it’s something that needs to be addressed, and we’re addressing it.”
And he’ll have to keep addressing it. He’ll probably be asked about it at least once during his first stop in every town not named Knoxville this season. He’s been banned by UT from recruiting off campus for a full year and had $1.5 million docked from his salary over a five-year period, and last week the SEC suspended him from this season’s first eight conference games.
“There’s no reasonable excuse,” Pearl told The New York Times on Tuesday. “When you get asked a question, you panic. I have no excuse for it. I can’t explain it.
“My character certainly is on trial. Judge me over the course of my career. I’ve made mistakes. I’m being penalized for it.”
The Times said Pearl “nervously twiddled his thumbs and twirled his wedding band while speaking with reporters.”
“We’ve run a clean program,” Pearl told the newspaper. “I’ve always run a clean program, and that’s why it’s so humbling and humiliating.”
UT’s first game since Pearl’s SEC suspension will come against always dangerous VCU. The 24th-ranked Volunteers (3-0) expect a tough game from the Rams (3-0), who routinely average near the top nationally in points and have already blasted ACC member Wake Forest 90-69 this season.
“I think VCU is right there as one of the top programs in the Colonial [Athletic Association], and they’ve got a very, very senior-laden team,” Pearl said. “They are a very aggressive, very athletic team, different than some of the teams we have played against to this point, so they’ll present us with that unique challenge.”
Regardless of the opponent, though, several Vols said the team simply needs to play better.
“We know we have to play better than we’ve been playing if we want to win in New York,” said forward Tobias Harris, UT’s leading scorer and the reigning SEC freshman of the week. “We’ve played some pretty good teams, but we’re about to play some better teams.”
Senior forward John Fields said the Vols had “plenty to correct” after early-round NIT close calls against Belmont and Missouri State.
“But all our mistakes are correctable, and we’re going to correct them,” he said. “We’ve got talented guys and great coaches, and we’re working hard to be the team we know we can be. The Garden is maybe the biggest stage in all of basketball, so we really want to put on a good show.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.