Bruce Pearl Returns: Will It Help?Posted by rtmsf on February 7th, 2011
Tuesday night Bruce Pearl will return to the sidelines for Tennessee for the first time this season during an SEC game. He served an eight-game suspension as meted out by the conference office, and his Volunteers navigated the league waters all right without him in the interim (5-3 with two overtime losses). Pearl’s top assistant, Tony Jones, adequately took over for him during his time off, but it should be noted that UT has so far played the tenth-best schedule (or third-worst, depending on how you like to view it) in the conference — beginning with tomorrow night’s rivalry game at Kentucky, the games get significantly tougher. In addition to that one, UT faces road trips to Vandy and Florida in coming weeks, not to mention the season-ending game in Knoxville versus the Wildcats.
Pearl is a larger-than-life figure in the national landscape and especially on the Tennessee campus, but it might be overstating things to say that his return will suddenly catapult UT back into the thick of the SEC race or the Top 25. Remember that in the midst of the eight-game hiatus, Pearl made a one-game return appearance in the Vols’ trip to Connecticut, a game where they played well before succumbing to Kemba Walker and company, 72-61. But they still lost, as they had done to four other teams in the non-conference schedule, including home defeats to Oakland, USC and Charleston. While it may be a nice storyline to discuss whether the Vols will rally around their returning leader as they head into the home stretch of the season, the question in our minds is whether such an expectation is realistic. We took a look at a couple of team performance statistics to see if there were any significant changes between the with- and without-Pearl games.
A couple of things jump right out at us from an eyeballing of the data. First, the Vols under Jones went from a team that rated among the top twenty fastest teams in America at 72.1 possessions to a much-slower middle-of-the-pack 66.5 possesssions in SEC play. This is partially the result of playing slower teams like Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn, but we also think it represents a slight strategy shift from Jones to emphasize taking better care of the ball and utilizing more patience than before. The second thing we noticed is that it actually appears through defensive points per possession that the Vols, while slowing things down a smidge, have played better defensively as a unit since Jones took over the reins. This makes sense, as in four of its five SEC wins Tennessee held its opponents under sixty points. In the two home losses in overtime, UT had shots in the air to win in regulation, suggestive that if there’s a deficiency, it’s probably on the offensive end — otherwise, the Vols could be sitting at 7-1 and leading the SEC East at the moment.
Of course, some of the improvement defensively could be attributed to a better understanding of the schemes and player development over the past several weeks while Pearl has been out of game action. Keep in mind that he’s been allowed to continue holding practices and preparing his team for each game despite not being allowed to actually attend those contests. It’ll be interesting to see if the Tennessee defense remains better throughout the rest of the SEC season or if the Vols revert back to some of their older, pre-conference season habits. We’ll certainly continue to track this team, as they remain one of the most interesting squads of anybody in the country, both from an off-court and a basketball perspective.