KNOXVILLE — Bruce Pearl has grown so accustomed to adversity the past few months that he struggled to say the word “success” Sunday night.
The embattled Tennessee men’s basketball coach said he wanted to “see about handling some adversity” heading into tonight’s home game against Middle Tennessee State.
“I mean, success,” Pearl said. “We’re going to see about handling some success.”
Perhaps it was an innocent slip, but maybe it just feels different to feel good again.
The Volunteers surged to No. 13 in this week’s Associated Press poll after topping previously unbeaten, seventh-ranked Villanova in Friday’s NIT Season Tip-Off title game in Madison Square Garden.
Amid an NCAA investigation into Pearl’s recruiting tactics, and shortly after the Southeastern Conference banned the head coach from this season’s first eight league games, UT swept four games in the NIT and brought home Pearl’s first tournament championship for the Vols.
But before they can focus on fall semester exams the rest of the week, and before they travel to Pittsburgh for a Dec. 11 game against the third-ranked Panthers, the Vols (5-0) must tangle with Middle Tennessee State (3-3) tonight in Thompson-Boling Arena.
“It’s a complete trap game,” Pearl said. “It’s a total, 100 percent trap game, and you talk about that with the players. You point to some different teams that had huge wins in their [Thanksgiving week] tournaments, and then they came home and played a very good team, but maybe not a team like Villanova.
“Middle Tennessee State is a good team, and they’ve got a chance to be a really good team this year. I like their personnel, and I love what they do. They’re hard to guard. They’re very multiple in their ball screen stuff. They’ve got a lot of offense in, and I know with a week to prepare he’ll have a lot of different things in there. So we’ve got to focus on our principles.”
Pearl’s Sunday night message to the Vols was simple. He told them he’d seen them beat Villanova, so he’d seen how well they could play, which left them no excuse not to practice at that same level.
They did that, according the players and coaches.
“A really good day,” assistant coach Steve Forbes said.
Said junior guard Scotty Hopson, the NIT MVP and reigning SEC player of the week: “We got after it. I thought it was a really good practice.”
The Vols said humility has been the key. They were humbled by a shocking exhibition loss to Division II Indianapolis, and they don’t want to feel that again tonight.
“I just think that [Indianapolis] loss helped us, reminding us about paying attention to detail, staying focused, having that business mindset,” junior guard Cameron Tatum said. “I don’t think during that game everybody understood it was go time, it was game time.
“I think that game was great for us, because it opened our eyes up and made us realize some things. Nobody’s going to lay down against us. This is big-time college ball. This is grown men. Everybody’s got a sense of pride. Everybody wants to knock off Tennessee. Everybody’s playing for a purpose. Everybody’s playing for pride. We’ve got to treat every game like we’re playing a Villanova.
“We’re not fat and happy. We’re not satisfied with anything. This is just the start.”
Hopson said “letdown” — as in not letting one happen tonight — has been the buzzword.
“We’re feeling good, obviously, but we’ve got to see the whole picture,” Hopson said. “We know we’re a good team but not a great team. There’s still a lot of things we can get better at. It was our day against Villanova. We beat a good team. But we’ve still got a long way to go.
“We still have some issues on the basketball floor that we need to take care of. We’ve still got to work to do.”
Senior forward John Fields, a 6-foot-9 transfer from UNC Wilmington, said a loss tonight would spoil the “pretty good vibe” around the program.
“Villanova was a good test for us, our first highly ranked opponent of the year, and we passed that test,” Fields said. “But we’ve got to continue passing tests.”
Tonight’s test, according to Fields, is a “test of focus.”
“It’s a classic sandwich game,” Fields added. “We’ve just got to buckle down and handle our things academically. It’s just like Coach Pearl said: ‘Come with the same focus and intensity every day, and get up for everything.’ We’ve got to get up every day for every opponent like we got up for Villanova at the Garden. MTSU at home, we’ve got to get up for that, too.
“We’ve got to match [MTSU’s] intensity. We’ve got to come out intense and just take it to them. Plus, the home crowd deserves a good showing from us, because we haven’t played well at home yet.”
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.