The suspended Tennessee head coach was on his couch at his home in Knoxville.
And now he’ll be back on the bench Saturday at Connecticut in a one-game reprieve from his eight-game SEC-imposed suspension for misleading NCAA investigators over secondary recruiting violations. He'll be back with the Volunteers as they ride the momentum of a two-game win streak over quality competition (rallied from 17 down Saturday to beat Vanderbilt).
“That’s the formula that we beat Pitt and Villanova with on the road, by being patient,’’ said Pearl by phone Tuesday night. “We mixed up who we put on [Georgia’s] Trey Thompkins and put Scotty [Hopson] on their best penetrators. We used our length and athleticism. The guys are executing and the assistant coaches are doing a great job.’’
Tennessee has been the nation's most enigmatic team this season -- handing Pitt its only loss this season, beating Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-Off final at Madison Square Garden and coming back to beat Vanderbilt at home and then Georgia in Athens. But this is the same Vols team, with Pearl as coach, that lost to Oakland and Charleston at home, beat Belmont and Tennessee-Martin in the last possessions and also got beat by USC and Charlotte.
With associate coach Tony Jones filling in for Pearl, the Vols lost the first two games of the suspension by falling at Arkansas by three and then to Florida in overtime in Knoxville.
Pearl is allowed to go on the road for the practice the day before a game and did so prior to Arkansas on Jan. 7. But he decided against going to Athens since the team practiced in Knoxville on Monday and left late Monday night.
“I can’t have contact on game day so rather than hide in the hotel let’s protect the integrity of the suspension,’’ Pearl said. “The guys are fine. I said let them go. I had the feeling we could win that game. We controlled the tempo. We stayed patient. It was a really good team effort. It’s going to be a terrific league race. There are six teams [in the SEC East] that are potential NCAA teams.’’
Pearl was adamant that nothing would change once he coaches this weekend. He will be back on suspension for four more SEC games -- LSU, at Ole Miss, at Auburn and against Alabama -- before returning at Kentucky on Feb. 8.
“By keeping it the same, it’s no different if I’m coaching or Tony,’’ Pearl said. “If I were suspended for a month and was out and couldn’t be involved in practice, then you could say that. But it doesn’t change.’’
Pearl said the Vols’ experience in last-possession games has helped them win games like against Vandy and Georgia.
“We have the ability to play with great energy and we have to do that,’’ Pearl said.
“You can’t guard Walker with one man,’’ Pearl said. “The whole team has to be aware.’’
If the Vols can beat Connecticut in Hartford this weekend, it would complete a rare trifecta for the Vols -- beating three of the top teams in the Big East.