KNOXVILLE — Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl is back after his eight- game suspension from Southeastern Conference play. He still feels like more punishment is on the horizon: His Volunteers play No. 18 Kentucky and No. 17 Florida this week.
Though Pearl has had plenty of success at Florida’s O’Connell Center, he hasn’t won at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena since an 75-67 victory on Feb. 7, 2006, against a Tubby Smith-coached Wildcats team.
“When Commissioner (Mike) Slive penalized me the eight games I think he originally wanted to do 10, but when he looked at the schedule and saw that I have to go to Rupp and the O’Dome, he decided to settle for just eight and make me go those two places,” Pearl joked Monday.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has his own issues with the Wildcats (16-6, 4-4), who are .500 halfway through the SEC season for the first time since 1990. Kentucky has lost its last two conference games, Calipari’s first losing streak since Memphis’ 2004-05 season.
Calipari is especially frustrated about Kentucky’s 70-68 loss at Florida on Saturday night, when Brandon Knight’s 3-pointer at the buzzer came up short — his only miss from behind the arc in the game.
“Only a crisis brings about change,” Calipari said. “We’re still the same team that’s lost four tough games and they’ve all been tough, tight sickening to lose. ... The last one is the one I got angry about because I’m looking at the tape right after the game on the plane and I see the same things I saw (in losses) against Mississippi and Alabama.”
The Volunteers (15-8, 5-3) may benefit from having their leader back on the sideline wearing the bright-orange blazer he reserves only for Kentucky and Vanderbilt games. Still, they’re coming off their own sickening overtime loss to SEC West Division leader Alabama at home, and tonight’s game in Lexington will be their third match in six days.
Both teams are fighting to hang on in a tight SEC East Division battle. Tennessee is second and one loss behind division leader Florida while Kentucky’s four losses ties them with Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the loss column.
“I think it speaks to how balanced the league is. I think it’s just going to be (like that) night in and night out,” Pearl said.
Tennessee is aiming to get better after three conference losses and a non-conference miss at then-No. 8 Connecticut. The Vols are also hoping for the return of junior guard Scotty Hopson, who missed both the Alabama game and a victory at Auburn after spraining his left ankle in practice on Feb. 1.
Hopson, a native of Hopkinsville, Ky., is still questionable, but went through a walk-through at Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday afternoon.
Pearl knows the Vols may still be haunted by the talk about the ongoing NCAA investigation but said he’ll be glad to get back on the Vols’ bus for the trip to Lexington after spending the last eight games watching the Vols play on TV either from his home or in a hotel room.
“I’m just glad to be back in a position where I could help, whatever’s over or not over. That eight-game suspension is over, but there’s other areas that we have to contend with, and we are contending with.”