Bruce Pearl discusses must-win game with Vanderbilt
Bruce Pearl broke another rule Friday afternoon - one of the unwritten variety.
Tennessee's sixth-year men's basketball coach uttered two daunting words reserved for only the most desperate of times: "Must win."
"If we're planning on winning the SEC East, it makes this a must-win game,'' Pearl said. "If that's pressure, welcome to the real world.
"The season isn't in balance, but the SEC championship is, and we've got to play like our lives depended on it.''
UT associate head coach Tony Jones will assume gameday head-coaching duties as Pearl serves the third game of his SEC-imposed eight-game league suspension.
Jones was waffling over wearing an orange sports coat for today's Vanderbilt game in the tradition established by former UT coach Ray Mears and carried on by Pearl, but there were bigger things on his mind as the Vols (10-6, 0-2 SEC) prepared for this ESPN-televised game with the Commodores (12-3, 1-1).
The players have been throwing around the "must-win" phrase since the buzzer sounded on an 81-75 overtime loss to Florida on Tuesday that made this the worst start to a UT season in Pearl's tenure - even after the team shot out to an unprecedented 7-0 start.
"I've been saying since the night we lost to Florida this is must-win,'' UT junior Scotty Hopson said. "Yeah, that's pressure, but we don't fold under pressure on the big stage in the big games.
"Our guys respond to pressure and adversity,'' Hopson said. "It should be like this every game, but it can't be. I mean, GameDay is here.''
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings talks about the Commodores
Jay Bilas, a noted analyst on ESPN's GameDay crew, sees Pearl's must-win approach as an attempt to ratchet up the sense of urgency.
"Looking at it from the outside . . . can a game in mid-January be must-win? No,'' Bilas said. "Especially when you're 10-6 and you've beaten teams like Villanova and Pittsburgh. From outside, it looks ludicrous (to say) must-win.
"But when you've lost a couple of close ones, it's a rallying cry.''
UT will take whatever motivation it can get after falling to 0-2 in the SEC for the first time in Pearl's tenure, and with a daunting schedule ahead that includes trips to play at No. 24 Georgia on Tuesday and at No. 10 Connecticut next Saturday.
The juncture at which the Vols find themselves led Hopson to call former UT great Chris Lofton for advice on Thursday night.
It's what made the UT student sleepover that took place in Thompson-Boling Arena on Friday night well-timed.
And it explains why the UT student managers deviated from the standard orange Gatorade to what they're referring to as a "Kryptonite" green brew for the players to drink in today's game.
Vols freshman Tobias Harris, who had his choice of schools to attend after a McDonald's All-American high school career, concedes the losses are getting under his skin.
"I came here to win a national championship, and that's still what I want to do,'' said Harris, who has had four double-doubles over the past five games. "Yeah, it's must win.''
Even the normally jovial Brian Williams, known as much for his wisecracks as his 6-foot-10, 260-pound frame, has worn a stern expression in the days leading up to today's game.
"Right now we're last in the SEC East,'' Williams said. "This game is about who's best in Tennessee. We need this victory at home, and we need the SEC win. Everything about it, we need it.''
Vanderbilt needs it, too, and the Commodores are well-equipped to give UT trouble with their perpetual motion offense, filled with players curling off screens and driving to the basket to draw fouls.
"Vandy has always had good shooters,'' UT junior Cameron Tatum said. "But now they've added some athletes, and they're more than a one-dimensional team.''
Pearl, in his precious few days of preparation, has turned over every stone on coach Kevin Stallings' team.
"Kevin has solid sets and he tweaks them based on his scout(-ing report),'' Pearl said.
"But (John) Jenkins is as Lofton-like of a shooter as anyone I've seen, and (Jeffery) Taylor is a beast, probably the best defender in college basketball, and he'll be all over guarding Scotty.''
Pearl's focus was such that he misplaced both his briefcase and his BlackBerry before recognizing in the middle of practice that they were missing.
It was the kind of thing that happens the day before a must-win game.