NEW YORK -- The NCAA mess that Bruce Pearl and his staff got the Tennessee program into will rear its ugly head again when the NCAA releases its official document of allegations, most likely within the next month.
But for one night at least, the Volunteer basketball team shifted the focus to actual basketball -- in this case an improbable NIT Season Tip-Off trophy after an impressive 78-68 win over seventh-ranked Villanova in the championship game at Madison Square Garden.
It’s become clear now that the more Tennessee wins, the less likely an NCAA investigation will have a major effect on this particular team.
The reason is the Vols have a basketball team that is again worthy of attention, and a freshman in Tobias Harris that should at least be in the same conversation with Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, Harrison Barnes of North Carolina, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight of Kentucky and in a few weeks, Josh Selby of Kansas.
“We showed toughness, in a tough environment and we had an edge coming in,’’ said Pearl. “Nobody picked Tennessee to win.’’
“I wouldn’t blame you,’’ Pearl said. “I would have picked Villanova against the field, too.’’
After this 10-point victory, in which they led for the final 12 minutes and for most of the game, the 24th-ranked Vols will certainly move up in the rankings. But just as importantly, perhaps, they’ll strike a bit of fear in the minds of every team in the SEC East, after Tennessee was picked to finish fourth in the division despite several pieces of the Elite Eight team returning and Harris’ arrival.
“We wanted the focus of our basketball program to be on the basketball,’’ said Tennessee senior wing Steven Pearl, whose scrappy 15 minutes didn’t go unnoticed. “I think [my dad] has handled it great. You can’t tell any difference with his coaching this team. He has acted normal. Off the court we talk about it, but he’s handling it very well. He’s done a good job of keeping it away, from it being a distraction.’’
The University of Tennessee and the Southeastern Conference had made it difficult to ignore. The school self-imposed penalties on Pearl and his staff, from docking salary to taking them off the recruiting road after Pearl misled NCAA investigators about high school recruits at a Pearl-housed barbeque. And then SEC commissioner Mike Slive put the focus back on Pearl with his unique eight-gamedays suspension to start league play, which doesn’t prevent Pearl from traveling with the team, coaching them in practice or -- in the middle of the suspension -- coaching the Vols at Connecticut on Jan. 22.
With that as a backdrop, the Vols arrived in New York perceived as sort of a team turmoil.
Well, they hardly fit the part. The only disruption Tennessee had here was backup point guard Trae Golden’s 102-degree fever that kept him out of the game against Villanova. Pearl said it was going to be a problem prior to tipoff because of Villanova’s guards.
But point guard Melvin Goins, a backup last season and now a starter, and Skylar McBee among others (including Hopson), handled the Nova guards quite well as Corey Fisher went 1-for-10 for three points (after scoring 26 in the semis) and Maalik Wayns went 3-for-11 for 11 points. The trio of Fisher, Wayne and Corey Stokes -- the same group that combined for 61 points against UCLA -- tallied just 25 against the Vols.
Villanova coach Jay Wright warned his guards about driving against Tennessee’s bigs and said they might have to make an extra pass. He foresaw that the Cats wouldn’t be able to get to the rim -- and they didn’t.
“What impressed me the most was how physical they all were, from Melvin Goins to Skylar McBee to Tobias Harris, their physicality,’’ Wright said.
The Vols had great balance against Nova, shutting down the Wildcats on 3s (4-of-21) and then hitting 3s at a more efficient manner on their end (6-of-16). Harris’ ability to be a point forward -- to take the ball and drive on his own to the hoop -- makes him a tough mismatch. Wright noticed.
“I want to win and I’m trying to do everything I can to help this team win,’’ said Harris, the freshman from Long Island.
“I think you saw what he was capable of, making tough plays,’’ said Pearl of Harris, who finished with 15 points and nine boards. “We put the ball in his hands a lot. He was recruited to play that point forward. He can be a good passer too. We need him to score. He’s an inside-out player and those are tough matchups.’’
The NIT was also the official arrival of Scotty Hopson as a go-to scorer. Hopson was a celebrated recruit as a McDonald’s All-American, but admittedly took a backseat the past two seasons. At SEC media day last month, he said he needed to be much more assertive.
Mission accomplished in New York. He was named the NIT’s MVP after scoring a team-high 18 (to go along with 19 against VCU). Cameron Tatum’s 17 showed how balanced offensively this team can be throughout the season. And the gritty play of another New Yorker, forward Brian Williams (12 points and seven boards), only adds to the Vols’ toughness.
“We were an Elite Eight team last year, but this is a new team with a lot of new guys,’’ Pearl said. “Our depth will always be a factor, but we played hard and were unselfish. We can rebound and we can defend.’’
On Dec. 11 at the SEC-Big East Invitational, Tennessee plays Pittsburgh at the CONSOL Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then the Vols have yet another Big East date Jan. 22 at UConn. And in between, Tennessee hosts USC and Memphis as well as a sneaky good College of Charleston. So there are plenty of potential potholes on the nonconference schedule.
As for league play, picking Florida, Kentucky or Vanderbilt ahead of Tennessee in the SEC East is still not a reach, based on the rosters and the flashes each of shown at times already this season. Georgia has been a bit of disappointment so far, but the Bulldogs haven’t had SEC preseason player of the year Trey Thompkins at full strength yet. Still, all those other teams have lost. The Vols have not. And they have the best win of that group so far.
“We understand that we’re not a great basketball team and we can’t get carried away and say we’re the best team in the country,’’ Steven Pearl said. “We beat a good Villanova team. We’ve got to stay grounded. Playing Pitt could be a different animal. But we’re excited for the test.’’
The players were certainly euphoric after the game, jumping on the back of Bruce Pearl at center court. Pearl kept saying the right things -- that this wasn’t about him, but rather about the team. And on this night at least, he was right. The shift from off the court to on the court was real.
“We had to get the issues focused on the court,’’ Williams said. “That’s what we wanted.’’
And that’s what they got.