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October 25, 2006

SEC notes: Pearl has frontcourt concerns

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SEC Media Day: 'Big Baby' slims down in offseason

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl introduced himself to the Southeastern Conference last year with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

When he wasn't irritating opponents with his audacity, his players were bothering rivals with their tenacity.

Picked to finish fifth out of six teams in the SEC Eastern Division, Tennessee capitalized on the novelty of its constant full-court pressure to win the division title despite having one of the smallest teams in the league.

Now that the Vols remain small in a conference full of elite big men, what can Pearl do for an encore?

"We can't play the we're-a-different-style card anymore," Pearl said Wednesday at the SEC basketball media days at the Birmingham Marriott. "That's gone. Unfortunately we need to play the same way because we're small and undersized. We'll just have to find a way. Certainly we've lost that element of surprise. Still, there aren't a lot of teams that play like we do. No matter how you try to prepare or practice, it's still different."

The Volunteers will have to be as guard-oriented as ever now that forward Andre Patterson has graduated and 6-foot-10 center Major Wingate has been dismissed from the team.

Pearl considered Wingate's departure particularly tough because it prevented him from having a center to match up against Florida's Joakim Noah, Kentucky's Randolph Morris and the Eastern Division's other top frontcourt players.

"It was devastating on many fronts," Pearl said. "Major survived. He's in Greece right now. He's making a good living. He's playing well. He recently had a child. I'm hoping life is going to be good for him. He unfortunately left a pretty big hole for us, and we didn't have a lot of time to fill it.

"Major and I had a very close personal relationship, and I feel it was a failure of mine that I couldn't reach him more and help him be successful to the point where I could play him this year."

Tennessee still has plenty of weapons, even if most of them are small.

Pearl welcomes back the backcourt duo of senior Dane Bradshaw and junior Chris Lofton, who arguably is the nation's most dangerous outside shooter. Tennessee also has an outstanding freshman class that features guard Ramar Smith, rated by Rivals.com as the No. 20 prospect in the 2006 recruiting season.

Lofton said the Volunteers want to prove last season wasn't a fluke.

"We caught some teams by surprise last year," Lofton said. "Coach always tells us that when people pat you on the back, it doesn't mean anything. He's right. We're nothing yet. We're a one-hit wonder. Everybody does that. He makes us build on trying to get better every day."

Tennessee may not have established itself as a traditional power yet, but its coach already has emerged as a media star.

Even though he was talking to media at the same time as Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, Pearl had an overflow crowd of reporters surrounding him throughout his 45-minute session.

He rewarded them with a flurry of sound bites.

Here's how he explained scheduling a game at Ohio State on Jan. 13, just as the SEC season is getting under way.

"I decided to play Ohio State for three reasons: CBS," Pearl quipped.

He also agreed with the Atlantic Coast Conference's call for NCAA Tournament expansion. The ACC complained after only four of its teams received NCAA invitations last season.

"It needs to be fixed," Pearl said. "There were too many bubble teams that belonged in the tournament last year, and you can't do it at the expense of mid-majors. The ACC's right."

Although Pearl's bigger-than-life persona earned him plenty of detractors, don't expect him to change his love-him-or-hate-him style.

Pearl apologized for one incident that took place last season. After a victory at Georgia, Pearl wanted his players to salute the Tennessee fans who had made the trip to Athens.

He intended for his players to stay on the playing surface while they did this, but a couple of Volunteers instead went in the stands.

"I apologize for that," Pearl said. "That shouldn't happen. Other than that, I don't think we did anything wrong."

GETTING OFF THE BIKE: Florida guard Lee Humphrey used to ride his bicycle to class every day. He remains such a cycling enthusiast that he watches the Tour de France on television each summer.

He also considers waterskiing as big a rush as playing basketball.

But the senior guard has reluctantly put aside his two off-court pursuits after a bike accident last year forced him to miss a game with a separated left shoulder.

He put his bicycle and skis away until the end of his college career.

"Whenever basketball's over, I'd like to get in a bicycle race just for fun, to see what would happen," Humphrey said.

CLOSE CALL: Florida's Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer shocked the college basketball world when they all decided to return to school after leading the Gators to a national championship.

Horford said Wednesday that he had a tough time sticking to the decision. Although all three players announced their intentions during a national championship celebration, Horford admitted he considered changing his mind.

"A lot of times it was close," the junior forward said. "I'm not going to lie. Even after we came out and said it, there were a couple of times I was like, 'Man, am I sure I want to do this again?' and stuff like that. But in the end, I definitely feel like I made the right decision. I'm really happy."

SEC vs. BIG EAST: SEC commissioner Mike Slive unveiled plans Wednesday for an SEC-Big East early-season competition that will take place in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Although the competition is somewhat similar to the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge, this one will have a different format. The event will include two doubleheaders each year one at a neutral site in the Big East area and another at a neutral site in the Southeast.

All 12 of the SEC representatives will play in this competition once during the three-year span. SEC officials said they would like to continue this competition after the current three-year agreement expires.

Pairings, dates and sites haven't been announced. Potential Big East host sites include New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. Potential SEC locations include Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa, Birmingham, Nashville, Tenn., and Memphis, Tenn.

CHANGING HABITS: LSU forward/center Glen Davis isn't the only SEC player who changed his diet during the offseason.

Lofton said he cut out hamburgers and French fries in favor of grilled chicken as he attempts to build his stamina.

"I think my conditioning's a lot better than it was last year at this point," Lofton said. "When the season starts, we'll see if it helps. It makes you feel good knowing you can maybe run all day. I'm not there yet, but by the end of the season or the middle of the season, I should be there. When we're in the middle of SEC play and everybody hits that wall and is tired, hopefully I'll have enough to push me."

SECOND CHANCE: Kentucky center Randolph Morris considers this year a fresh start.

The 6-foot-11 Morris entered the NBA draft after the 2004-05 season but wasn't selected. He missed the Wildcats' first 14 games last season and wasn't declared eligible until Kentucky began conference play.

Morris spent the rest of the season playing catchup, though he eventually averaged 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.

"This year hopefully is going to be different altogether from top to bottom," Morris said. "It's a great load off my shoulders, me being here at the beginning of the year. It's going to make a world of difference for our team."

Although Morris has been a lightning rod for criticism throughout his career, teammate Bobby Perry saluted him for the way he battled through adversity.

"It had to be tough on him and had to be tough on his psyche," the senior forward said. "He came back and showed he had a great attitude. He played tremendous, considering the fact the fans were killing him, the media was killing him. I thought he handled it really well."

NO FEUD HERE: LSU coach John Brady said he has cleared up any misunderstanding that may have existed between himself and Pearl.

Brady said reports of disharmony between the two men circulated only after a newspaper publicized an off-the-cuff remark the LSU coach made to a friend. Brady said he later explained himself to Pearl.

"My brother-in-law is a Tennessee guy sitting behind me when the game's over," Brady said. "I turn around and talk to him, make some comment about Bruce off the cuff. This (reporter) writes it. When you make an off-the-cuff comment to a family member behind you, and this guy writes it in the paper, it loses its humor and it looks like I've taken a shot.

Brady said he realized there was a problem only after Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis called and read him a headline the following day.

"I said, 'Oh, man,' '' Brady said. "I knew exactly where that came from."

WORKING OVERTIME: No SEC player worked quite as hard as Alabama point guard Ronald Steele last year.

Steele averaged 38.4 minutes per game to lead all conference players by a wide margin. Former LSU guard Darrel Mitchell (36.7) and Auburn guard Quantez Robertson (35.4) were the only other players in the league to average more than 35 minutes per game.

The Crimson Tide hope the arrival of seven freshmen and one junior college transfer will help ease some of Steele's workload.

"I'm willing to do whatever," Steele said. "If it takes me playing 40 minutes to be successful, I'll do that. If it takes me cutting back on minutes for us to be a better team, I'm willing to do that. With the players we have coming in, it's going to help us with depth and may really help me personally."

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