Bruce Pearl has his Tennessee Volunteers basketball team playing well these days. No doubt they are loaded with potential, perhaps more than any team ever in Big Orange Country.
As long as senior point guard Melvin Goins stays healthy and senior Scotty Hopson continues to play well, they certainly have a strong chance to go very deep into the NCAA tournament. The addition of transfer Jerome Mayman, perhaps as early as this week, will help with depth inside.
Tobias Harris seems to be the most mature, intelligent and skilled player on the floor, despite being only a freshman. He's no Bernard King (who is?), but he is very consistent, and when he develops a more dominating mentality and personality, as opposed to being a solid finesse player, he can be a very special guy.
Senior Brian Williams is quietly playing well now, and this year's team is developing a really unselfish chemistry, which bodes well for the long-term. They will need that cohesiveness to play at their best without their head coach for half of their Southeastern Conference games.
While it is unknown what will eventually come down on Pearl by the NCAA, he seems to be their whipping boy. However, that may be irrelevant to this season, as whatever penalties they mete out in addition to those already imposed, if any, may not take effect until next season.
Tennessee's coaching staff, all of whom have taken a pay cut this year, will be asked to step up to the plate with Bruce gone for the first half of the conference slate of games. Generally regarded as one of the best coaching staffs in America, headed by Associate Coach Tony Jones, they will be put into the national limelight on gameday at a critical point in the season. Their potential is great as well and will certainly be measured by everyone.
Arguments can be made either way, but this team certainly may be the most talented Bruce Pearl has ever had in his career. Coming on the heels of Tennessee's first-ever appearance in the NCAA Elite Eight, could the Final Four be the next stop for this group?
Big Orange Country has certainly never had as much attention focused on it in men's basketball since the days of legendary coach Ray Mears in the 1970's. The Big Orange Tipoff Club, founded in part in his honor, is bursting at the seams in terms of popularity, with overflow crowds at their weekly winter luncheons during the SEC season in Downtown Knoxville on the Tennessee River, just upstream from the UT campus and Thompson-Boling Arena.
With strong senior leadership and a good mix of young talent that goes deep into the bench, Pearl has a winning combination that would make any of his colleagues envious. He will have the microscope on him in many ways as he uses his considerable coaching skills to mold and motivate them as the season unfolds.
The Vols made a huge jump in the polls this week, moving up from 23rd to 13th nationally by winning the NIT Tipoff Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City, upsetting previously 7th-ranked Villanova, a Final Four team last year. They have an extended break for finals before going on the road to face both Pittsburgh and Charlotte in two of their next three games before Christmas.
It's a little too early to tell, but the Big Orange Nation might have a team that will go undefeated in December, just as they did in November.
To do that, they'll have to beat Southern Cal at home, coached by one of Pearl's predecessors at UT, Kevin O'Neill, a team they suffered a disappointing loss to on the road last season. Since Lane Kiffin left jilted the football Vols earlier this year, perhaps the basketball team can pay his new school back in some measure this season.