Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl addresses the press during media day at the Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Brimer)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has excelled at leading the Volunteers to success in the face of adversity. The 2010-11 season may be his biggest challenge yet.
Instead of motivating a team low on talent or hobbled by suspensions, Pearl has to overcome the fallout from an ongoing NCAA investigation into his recruiting practices — and he must do it without his leaders from last season's NCAA regional finals team.
Pearl is already trying to keep their minds off of it.
Players "shouldn't worry about it. They're not part of it," Pearl said. "They certainly are human, and they hear some of the things that are being said, but you try not to pay attention to any of that stuff. That's not our focus. That stuff's going to run its course. All we can focus on is getting degrees, doing our jobs in the community and becoming a good basketball team."
The 23rd-ranked Vols certainly have the makings of a good basketball team in Pearl's sixth season.
They've lost forward Wayne Chism and guards J.P. Prince and Bobby Maze but have added a strong incoming class. Pearl signed top power forward recruit Tobias Harris, wing Jordan McRae and combo guard Trae Golden and brought in senior forward John Fields from UNC-Wilmington and sophomore forward Jeronne Maymon from Marquette.
Even the newcomers already expect to be able to handle the roadblocks that come their way.
"Tennessee basketball is a family," McRae said. "When we face adversity, we thrive. Look at our past."
Last season, Pearl was forced to suspend three of his players and dismiss star forward Tyler Smith after the four were arrested. Without them, the Vols were able to upset No. 1 Kansas and survive the start to an always brutal Southeastern Conference schedule.
They went on to also upset No. 1 Kentucky and finished 28-9, narrowly missing their first Final Four trip when they lost 70-69 to Michigan State in their first regional final appearance.
Senior point guard Melvin Goins returns from that team, far more prepared to lead the team this season than a year ago when he was a fresh junior college transfer and dealing with a knee injury. Junior guard Scotty Hopson, a preseason all-SEC pick, also returns after spending the summer working at the LeBron James Skills Academy and training with USA Basketball's Men's Select Team.
"I think now my mental focus has really changed. I just feel right now as a leader on this team I have to do more and step up," Hopson said.
The Vols will still be fast, but they won't necessarily dictate tempo or be the full-court pressure kind of team that was the hallmark of Pearl's first few seasons at Tennessee.
Instead they can dominate the paint with Harris and sophomore forward Kenny Hall — both 6-foot-8 — and 6-foot-10 center Brian Williams, who's in the best shape of his career after spending several weeks this summer in an intensive conditioning program. Williams, now a senior, is down 100 pounds from his freshman season weight of 385.
"We've got good traditional size. The closer we get to the basket, the better we will look," Pearl said. "How much full-court pressure we're going to use? we may still turn people over. I think we'll be a better shot blocking team, I think we'll be a better rebounding team."
Tennessee will find out early how good it can be when it hosts first- and second-round games in the NIT Season Tip-Off that could lead to a trip to New York. The Vols also travel to No. 5 Pittsburgh and host Southern California and No. 19 Memphis before facing an SEC schedule that will include multiple games against No. 9 Florida and No. 11 Kentucky.
The results of the NCAA's investigation into recruiting practices by Pearl and his assistants could come as early as December. Tennessee officials expect Pearl to be charged with unethical conduct.
Pearl acknowledged in September that he mislead investigators about photos taken of him and recruit Aaron Craft, when Pearl improperly hosted the prospect at his home in 2008. Tennessee also revealed he and his staff made excessive calls to recruits.
If the NCAA charges do interrupt the season, the Vols don't plan on letting it bother them.
"Whatever's happening off the court isn't going to affect us on the court," sophomore guard Skylar McBee said. "We have goals that we want to obtain, and to do that we have to come and work hard and stay focused, and that's what we're going to do."