Extras from Europe
Special thanks to Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl and the UT athletic department for allowing me complete access to the team. I was with the team most every hour of every day, and every player was accommodating and cooperated in the News Sentinel’s coverage of the trip.
VIENNA, AUSTRIA — One leader. Ten players. Ten days.
You think Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl is a busy man working the side court?
The man lives the same way.
Up early to exercise, on to breakfast, and then straight to whatever events are laid out before him. There is no down time or built-in breaks in Pearl’s schedule or life.
If he’s on the team bus or driving in his car, there’s a phone in his hand.
If he’s not talking with the media, he’s dealing with a recruit, or an administrator, or maybe even an air conditioning man in Knoxville, as he was on one afternoon bus trip in Prague, Czech Republic.
After the 103-98 loss in Slovakia on Wednesday night, Pearl was talking to his father, his voice lowered, his tone emotional.
Everyone needs someone for support, even the man referred to as “The Almighty Bruce,’’ by his players.
Those who want to “roll,’’ as the UT assistant coaches say, with Pearl, must realize one thing: You’re on his schedule, and Pearl rarely waivers.
So it was a big deal to the assistants when Pearl waited for me when I was late arriving at the rally point during a visit to a triple-decker mall in Slovakia.
Steve Forbes, the straight-forward, tell-it-like-it-is assistant, started to lecture me as he would a player, but Pearl stepped in and said that was unnecessary.
“We don’t need this to escalate,’’ Pearl said, somehow sensing my adrenaline rising.
Being late wasn’t my fault. In fact, part of the reason I was late was because I followed Pearl’s instructions.
For various reasons, I wasn’t able to execute Pearl’s plan as precisely as the coach — and unquestioned group leader — had requested.
As Pearl’s players like to say, “you learn Coach Pearl is always right, even if you don’t think he is.’’
Walking alongside Pearl through the streets of the three European cities — Prague, Bratislava and Vienna — UT visited, it became apparent that Pearl’s Pied Piper effect is not limited to basketball or the United States.
All sorts of people approach Pearl, perhaps sensing his charisma and warmth, and Pearl talked to them all. Some ended up coming to UT’s games in central Europe, even if they had no prior relationship with the team.
Pearl’s way of dealing with issues is to dive head-first into the controversial and touchy subjects first, such as the preseason expectations being placed on his team.
The UT coaches and players admit that anything less than a Final Four appearance would be a disappointment, even though the program has never advanced past the Sweet 16 and this is only Pearl’s third year as coach with the Vols.
But they are not getting carried away. When the talk turns to a national championship, Pearl draws a line.
“I’m glad you brought that up,’’ Pearl said. “There are reasons for people to be optimistic: we have a lot of players back from the Sweet 16 team, we have talented newcomers, so we have good depth, and people seem to think we’re a good coaching staff.
“But let’s look at the past teams that won it, and we need to ask ourselves if we’re talented enough.’’
Florida, winners of the past two national titles, had three first-round picks in the NBA draft. Ohio State, last year’s runner-up, had three first-round picks, too.
Three years ago, North Carolina won the national title and had four players taken in the first round.
How many first-round picks does Tennessee have?
Still, Pearl believes it can be done. He has seen how ESPN and CBS have responded to the Vols’ adventurous schedule by televising numerous UT games.
First things first, before the opening tip Pearl must settle on a starting lineup and rotation.
“There’s not a starting lineup right now, although you look at the backcourt and you see Chris (Lofton) and JaJuan (Smith) are seniors, and Ramar (Smith) is there even if he didn’t play his best here,’’ Pearl said. “My decision on the starting lineup will come down to academics and who plays defense.’’
Pearl was pleased but not satisfied with what the team accomplished on the court in Europe.
“I’d give them a C-plus for their basketball and an A for their off-court studies and behavior,’’ he said.
After returning home late tonight, the Vols start classes Wednesday and jump back into the weight room on Aug. 27.
“It will be just like it would have been if we didn’t take this trip,’’ Pearl said. “But we gained some insights on things we’ll need to work on.’’
Lofton isn’t in a hurry to advertise his opinions or jump in front of a camera. In fact, after spending 10 days on the road around the shooting star, it’s clear he prefers to be seen and not heard.
Lofton smiles when kidded about his camera shyness.
“What do you want me to say?’’ Lofton said. “What am I supposed to say when they ask me some of those things?’’
Lofton, much like UT football coach Phillip Fulmer, prefers to play it safe with the media and say little to avoid stirring controversy or hurting anyone’s feelings.
“That’s just Chris,’’ said JaJuan Smith, who provides the verbal leadership and serves as Pearl’s model defender.
“Chris and I came in together, and we’ve been through a lot together,’’ Smith said. “We both want to see Tennessee at the top and we’re gonna do what it takes.’’
Lofton and Smith, the team leaders, were asked point-blank about how they would handle inevitable talk about their NBA prospects, and projections that have the younger UT players ahead of them.
“It doesn’t bother me,’’ Lofton said.
“Why would it bother us?’’ Smith said, “don’t you think me and Chris have been dealing with that kind of thing our whole lives?’’
Lofton was fortunate to be offered a scholarship to an SEC school after Kentucky passed him up.
Smith walked on until UT found a scholarship for him, and soldiered through a tumultuous freshman year.
“I wasn’t playing much, but I knew I could compete with the guys out there,’’ said Smith, UT’s second-leading returning scorer behind Lofton. “Coach Pearl believed in me.’’
UT associate head coach Tony Jones, who often serves as an ombudsman of sorts between the players and Pearl, said Smith’s leadership is as important as Lofton’s.
“JaJuan is the veteran in the bunch,’’ Jones said. “We’re trusting him to look out for the younger guys.’’
Lofton, meanwhile, is just wonderfully Lofton.
Returning from a dinner in Prague, Lofton passed a man kneeled over on the sidewalk holding out a tin cup.
“Do you think I should have given money to him?’’ Lofton said, 10 steps past the begger.
“I don’t know Chris,’’ I replied, “that’s up to you.’’
Lofton pivoted, and 10 steps later, he was emptying both of his pockets of change.
Minutes later, Lofton ran into teammates who were headed out, Smith, the veteran, leading the way.
“Nah, I can’t go,’’ Lofton yelled across the street. “I need my beauty rest.’’
Lofton returned to the hotel alone, five hours before curfew.
“I’ve got to make sure I’m ready for tomorrow night,’’ Lofton explained. “I just feel like, if we lost, it would be on me. I always have to be ready to be there for the team. It’s been that way my whole life.’’
Smith saw to it the rest of the players made curfew each night in Europe.
The question fans keep asking is how will the Vols get along without Dane Bradshaw, who has graduated.
The answer: Just fine.
“I think the older guys know how it was before Coach Pearl,’’ said senior guard Jordan Howell. “That’s why we appreciate what the younger guys are bringing. Sure, you want to play, but if it’s better for the team for someone else to get the minutes, you’ve got to be all for it.’’
It’s not just talk from the players.
Ten days of unlimited access allowed for a great deal of light to be shed on how the players truly connect. The 103-98 loss Wednesday to Pezinok served to reveal the bare essence of the Vols’ chemistry.
The verdict? The Vols are closer than most would believe.
Of course, this team has issues, like any other.
But the team deals with those issues internally, without much squabbling, and sometimes with nothing needing to be said.
No one likes to practice against junior Ryan Childress, who scraps in practice like he would for his last meal. But the Vols all realize Childress’ value, and they become his biggest fans from the bench.
Another example of the team chemistry occurred in Europe after Wayne Chism sat out much of the Vols’ only loss on the trip with a sore knee.
Before leaving that game, Chism got dunked on, much to the dismay of his teammates, who were still in disbelief afterward.
For the next two days, Chism felt his teammates eyes on him and understood the ramifications of his performance in the loss.
Chism responded with 28 points in Friday night’s win, running the floor, stealing the ball, rebounding, blocking shots and dunking. After the game, he claimed ownership for the earlier loss, saying it was all his fault.
“It’s never one guy’s fault, but the way Wayne handled his business is how it’s supposed to be,’’ JaJuan Smith said. “No one needs to get mad with each other. We all know what we’re supposed to do, and if we don’t, Coach Pearl will tell us.’’
One leader. One team. One championship quest.
It all started in Europe.
Mike Griffith covers University of Tennessee men’s basketball. He can be reached at email@example.com.