It is hard to quantify just how much a head coach means to his team on game day. However, an interesting case study will begin Saturday.
Tennessee (10-4) will visit Arkansas in its SEC opener for the both teams and the Volunteers will be without coach Bruce Pearl, who will begin an eight-game suspension mandated by the conference for being untruthful to NCAA investigators. Pearl will not be allowed to have any contact with his team on the day of those eight games, though he will be able to continue to run practices and develop game plans for each opponent as well as coach a non-conference game at Connecticut on Jan. 22.
Pearl has been downplaying the suspension all season. Therefore, it is not surprising that he is not being an alarmist about the stretch of games that the Volunteers will play without him that won't end until Feb. 8 when they visit Kentucky.
"I'm just really trying to focus on the players," Pearl said. "One of the biggest things you can do as a coach is be very similar in your preparation, very similar in your practices, whether you're getting ready for an exhibition game, a non-conference game or a conference game. It will be business as usual in getting ready to play Arkansas. The only thing different is I won't be in the arena for the game. We'll be a man down and we'll see how the coaching staff responds, just like when we lose a player to injury and are a man down, and see how the rest of the team responds."
Associate head coach Tony Jones will run the team in Pearl's absence. Jones and fellow assistant coaches Steve Forbes and John Shay have been with Pearl since he came to Tennessee in 2005. Furthermore, Jones and Shay also coached under Pearl at his previous stop at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"Our coaching staff has been together for a long time," Pearl said. "We've always done things together and there's a great continuity in the staff. Tony Jones will do a great job of standing up and leading our team when I'm not there. I have no doubt about that."
Perhaps a change do Tennessee some good as, until beating Memphis 104-83 on Wednesday night, it had struggled since notching a road victory at Pittsburgh on December 11 to move to 7-0 and rise to No. 1 in the RPI. The Volunteers have since gone 3-4, including losses to Oakland, Charlotte, USC and College of Charleston and unimpressive wins over Belmont by one point and Tennessee-Martin by six.
"Defensively, we've dropped off quite a bit in last five or six ballgames," Pearl said. "We had a couple of losses and they've just built on themselves. We had a lot of momentum going early in the season and then we lost it."
In terms of adjusted efficiency, Tennessee is actually performing better on the defensive end with a 91.2 mark compared to 107.1 on offense. The Volunteers have a 12.1 block rate and guard Melvin Goins' 4.0 steal percentage is fifth in the SEC.
"We haven't had good energy," Pearl said. "We need to shorten the rotation, make some tough decisions on playing time. It will simply come down to who will defend and who will rebound. Those are the people who will play."
Bearcats Undefeated But Also Untested
Cincinnati is 14-0 yet did not enter the top 25 in The Associated Press' media poll until this week and have yet to crack The List, Basketball Prospectus' top 25 based on a variety of objective ratings. The Bearcats are also 66th in the RPI.
Cincinnati's critics point to the fact that the Bearcats have played one of the weakest schedules in the nation, the 10th-worst in the nation by kenpom.com's measurement. Not surprisingly, coach Mick Cronin is making like Rodney Dangerfield in defending his team.
"Our road margin is 23 points a game and yet the guys don't feel like they're getting any respect," Cronin told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Cincinnati is 2-0 in the Big East after beating DePaul and Seton Hall. However, the Bearcats' biggest challenge so far this season comes Thursday night when they host Xavier (8-4) in the annual Crosstown Shootout.
"They're anxious to get started," Cronin said of his players. "They really haven't been challenged and I think they're looking forward to it."
Added freshman guard Sean Kilpatrick: "I know this is a big deal in Cincinnati. It'll be a good test for us, actually, because this is something that the whole city is anticipating."
Showdown Looming for Cleveland State
Cleveland State is another team in the state of Ohio looking for recognition as its 14-1 start has gone virtually unnoticed on a national level.
However, the Vikings will get a chance to make their mark Friday night when they visit Butler (10-5) in the Horizon League, a big game even though the Bulldogs' 22-game conference winning streak was snapped at Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Monday night. Cleveland State leads the league with a 4-0 record while Butler is in a four-way tie for second at 2-1 with Detroit, Valparaiso and Wright State.
Cleveland State's lone loss came at West Virginia on Dec. 18. Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins was impressed, though.
"I like their team," Huggins said. "I think they've got a great bench. Gary (Waters) can go to a bunch of people. I like them a lot."
Senior guard Norris Cole is starring for Cleveland State as he is averaging 20.9 points/4.8 rebounds/4.9 assists/33.4 minutes and leads the Horizon League with a 34.3 assist rate and 4.3 steal percentage. However, the player most likely to shine in a big game like Friday's is junior guard Jeremy Montgomery, who has an 11.8/3.4/2.3/30.6 line.
Montgomery's back-to-back three-pointers late in the game in 2009 helped Cleveland State beat Butler in the Horizon League tournament final. Last season, Montgomery scored 22 points against Butler and also had 25 against Ohio State and 20 against Kansas State. He had a 20-point game in a victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a 21-point performance in a win over South Florida earlier this season.
"Jeremy doesn't fear these games," Waters told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He's just a gamer. When the game is on the line, he comes to play."
Said Montgomery: "It's knowing you'll knock down the shot, or knowing you make the kick out when needed. Be headstrong, 100 percent forward. I love those types of positions to be in."
Record-Setting Performance by Mike James
Lamar's Mike James had a game for the ages on Tuesday night as his team rolled to a 114-62 victory over Division III Louisiana College. And it went beyond the junior guard setting a school record with 52 points.
James scored those 52 points in just 28 minutes while coming off the bench. James also set the Lamar record for three-point field goals with 11.
"It means a lot," James told the Beaumont Enterprise. "You get remembered forever. If I come back or anything, they'll always know who I am. I'll always be in the record book."
James made 18-of-35 field goal attempts, including 11-of-21 three-pointers, and was 5-of-7 at the free throw line. Coach Steve Roccaforte originally planned to take James out after he set the three-point record with his 11th trey. However, Roccaforte changed his plan once he was informed James was within reach of the single-game scoring record of 50 points that had been set by Mike Olliver in 1980.
James is averaging 15.9/2.5/1.8/16.9 for Lamar (6-7), which opens Southland Conference play Saturday night by visiting Central Arkansas (4-9). The Cardinals are just No. 308 in the RPI, though, as four of their six victories are against non-Division I opponents.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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