By now, every Tennessee fan is tired of hearing about Bruce Pearl lying to the NCAA. And I am too.

So this column will focus solely on the basketball team’s performance this year compared with Pearl’s first five seasons and will not take into account the NCAA’s investigation or anything related to it.

Putting all the off-the-court problems aside, this season has been by far the most disappointing in Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee.

The Volunteers have limped through their past 24 games with a record of 11-13, following a 7-0 start.

The win at Pittsburgh on Dec. 11 seems so long ago it could be mistaken as part of UT’s run to the Elite Eight last year.

Still, Pearl’s worst season on Rocky Top shouldn’t diminish his success over his first five years. (Remember, this is strictly looking at on-court performance.)

“I'm just happy for the university, and I’m happy for just the level of excitement (surrounding the basketball program),” former Vol great Allan Houston said before Sunday’s game against Kentucky, when his No. 20 was retired. “I do think Coach Pearl had done an amazing job himself in creating some excitement.”

It could be argued the excitement Pearl created upon arriving in Knoxville has been the reason for the program’s rise to national prominence. Before Pearl arrived, UT was in the bottom half of the SEC, year in and year out. The Vols had missed the NCAA Tournament the previous four seasons before he left Wisconsin-Milwaukee for Tennessee.

It wasn’t the guaranteed 20-win seasons from Pearl-coached teams that sparked that enthusiasm at first. It was his style of play.

The Vols pressed opponents 94 feet. They shot NBA-range threes with 30 seconds left on the shot clock. Pearl called it “Helter Skelter,” or controlled chaos.

Call it anything. Whatever it was, it won.

But this year — and to a lesser extent last season — Pearl got away from the style of play that brought him to Knoxville.

Coupled with mistakes in recruiting, the deepest, and arguably most talented, team Pearl has fielded in Knoxville has been his worst.

The Vols lost an unprecedented eight home games inside Thompson-Boling Arena this season. By comparison, Pearl only lost eight homes games in his first five years at UT combined.

Yet, despite all the “bad” losses and .500 conference record, the Vols are in position to make the NCAA Tournament for a sixth-consecutive year for the first time in school history.

And that is what UT fans have in Pearl. A winner unlike any other coach the men’s basketball program has ever had. (Yes, Ray Mears was great, but Pearl has taken the program to another level.)

“For me, going to the (NCAA) tournament six years in a row would probably mean as much to me as our first Elite Eight appearance a year ago,” Pearl said. “That’s another thing I don’t know if everyone would have that same feeling, because getting to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history, that’s a big deal advancing. But still, that’s winning three games. Going to the NCAA Tournament — if we can — six years in a row, to me, speaks about our program and the consistency.”

And when the NCAA Tournament begins next week, this Tennessee team — as crazy as it sounds — will be just three games away from going as far as any team in school history.
    A crazy thought, but it’s been a crazy season already.


— Matt Dixon is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at mdixon3@utk.edu. He can also be followed on Twitter at @mattdixon3.