Friday March 26th, 2010

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Addressing a phalanx of reporters courtside after the win over Ohio that moved Tennessee into the Sweet 16, Vols coach Bruce Pearl openly admitted that he didn't see this coming.

Not after his program was rocked by a New Year's Day traffic stop that implicated four players in a guns-and-marijuana scandal. Not when Pearl subsequently dismissed leading scorer Tyler Smith from the program and suspended three other key players (Melvin Goins, Brian Williams and Cameron Tatum). Not even after his shorthanded Vols, with just six scholarship players and the movie-script shooting of walk-on Skylar McBee, pulled off a shocking upset of No. 1 Kansas a few days later.

These Vols are the antithesis of everything Pearl's teams in Knoxville have been. They can be offensively challenged and defense-dependent to the point that Pearl noted to a team beat reporter in January that he felt as if he were "coaching left-handed."

Yet, here they are, in their third Sweet 16 in four seasons, with irony dripping everywhere. Goins, who was suspended for four games, provided the late-game heroics in the Vols' first-round game against San Diego State. In Round 2, it was Josh Bone, who had stepped up in Goins' January absence and then played just two minutes of the 11 games before last Saturday's, helping Tennessee to victory over Ohio.

"It's been a tough season but it's also been special," Bone said in the locker room after his 10 points and defensive contributions helped down the Bobcats. "Everything we've been through, it's just a compliment to us for staying together and doing good for our coach and playing hard, and that's what we did."

The Vols remain somewhat of a mystery, which is very odd for a major-conference team at this stage of the season. Going into a game, you know what style and effort you'll see, but there's still considerable question about the quality of the performance and who will be a primary focus.

The latter is a tribute to the roster depth that was crafted, in part, by the adversity the Vols have faced. Tennessee appears to be a hardened, more focused -- and perhaps more formidable -- team now. The postgame locker room mood was all business, and the talking points were about togetherness, selflessness and how the reintegration of players post-suspension was accepted by all.

At a school where Pearl routinely refers to himself as the "second-best basketball coach" behind Pat Summitt while leading his own program to new heights, this may be his greatest trick yet.

"We didn't talk about the guys that were on suspension, we didn't talk about the incident as a team, but the players knew I was spending a great deal of time with those guys in separate conversation, in separate discipline, in early morning workouts to keep those guys ready," Pearl said.

"At that point, we were not a better team when Tyler left," he added. "Now? I don't know whether we're better without Tyler. Our defense and our rebounding has really picked up and been a constant throughout the season. ... Those two things obviously have been great constants for us. We're probably not a better offensive team without Tyler."

They definitely aren't. In Pearl's first four seasons in Knoxville, the Vols ranked no lower than 21st in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to This season, they're 91st, and their raw numbers are lower if you just consider the part of the season after Smith was dismissed.

From watching Tennessee last weekend, though, it's clear the Vols are more imposing offensively than the data suggests, and maybe Pearl has found a method to the season-long roster-juggling madness. Starting with the upset of Kentucky on Feb. 27, the Vols' offense has gone from fairly below average to consistently decent, which is a huge boon for a team that's seventh in D-I defensively. In Providence, the Vols notched 1.03 PPP against San Diego State and a robust 1.14 against Ohio. If the Vols can stay above a point per possession in tonight's regional semifinal against Ohio State, they will have a good chance.

"We have a lot of weapons on our team," said senior forward Wayne Chism. "When our team's all together, we cannot be stopped. If we want to be together and stay together, no one's going to stop us."

The Buckeyes will try to, and the battle of Thad Matta's Iron Five, led by Naismith Award favorite Evan Turner, against the aggression and depth of the Vols will provide a pleasing contrast of styles. While Tennessee has plenty of talented players like J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson, there's a good chance one of tonight's heroes could rise from the midseason mire, having earned his way back into the team's good graces.

"They made some bad decisions, and it got so much publicity because of the steps we took," Pearl said. "When the guys came back, little by little, they responded when they came back because that's what family does. You forgive, you learn and you move on."

Tennessee has moved on all the way to St. Louis, with a chance for further redemption at hand. That's a family history no one could have seen coming.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.