His Vols won a program-record 31 games in 2007-08 but lost by 19 to a lanky Louisville team in the NCAA Sweet 16. Since then, Tennessee has steadily brought in more height and length. The 2010-11 newcomers, for instance, include 6-9 UNC-Wilmington transfer John Fields, 6-9 freshman Tobias Harris, 6-7 Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon and 6-5 freshman Jordan McRae.
This quartet joins towering returnees Brian Williams (6-10), Renaldo Woolridge (6-10), Kenny Hall (6-9), Scotty Hopson (6-7), Cameron Tatum (6-6) and Steven Pearl (6-5) to give Tennessee what surely ranks as its tallest roster ever. The projected starting five consists of the 6-10 Williams, the 6-9 Harris, the 6-7 Hopson, the 6-6 Tatum and 5-10 point guard Melvin Goins.
That’s a stark contrast to Pearl’s first Vol squad which featured just one starter taller than 6-4. That undersized 2005-06 team compensated for its lack of size by pressing fullcourt and running an all-out transition offense. Conversely, the 2010-11 team projects to play a more deliberate pace to exploit its height advantage.
“We’re going to have to take advantage of our size,” Pearl said during his annual preseason media day. “We’ve got good traditional size. We’ve got big guards, big wings and our frontline will look pretty much like everybody else’s. So, the closer we get to the basket, the better we could look. The farther we get away from the basket, the more challenged we will be.”
Pearl still loves to press on defense and run on offense, so Tennessee will never walk the ball up the floor for 40 minutes. Still, the Vols may do a lot more halfcourt pressing than fullcourt pressing in the season ahead.
“How much fullcourt pressure we will use is something that will be debatable,” Pearl said. “We’re not going to change our ability to run and be really good in the fast break and the secondary (break). We’ll still turn people over but we may not be able to turn them over 94 feet as much as we turn them over in halfcourt.”
The 2010-11 Vols may not score as well away from the basket but they project to defend better near the basket than in years past.
“I think we’ll be a better shot-blocking team and a better rebounding team,” Pearl said.
Although this year’s lineup projects to be quicker than last year’s, a return to the frantic tempo of Pearl’s first three seasons at the helm is not realistic.
“Smaller, quicker, fullcourt-pressing teams can dictate tempo,” the coach said. “They can speed it up and they can slow it down. If you can’t use fullcourt pressure, you can’t dictate tempo. You can go faster with a big team but you can’t make the other team go faster, so we will not be able to dictate tempo. The first few years we HAD to dictate tempo. That was the only chance we had.”
Strangely enough, the more height Pearl has recruited the more he has gotten away from his coaching roots – fullcourt pressure and full-bore transition offense. The irony is not lost on him.
“Ironically, the team I inherited (at UT) had to look more like the teams I had coached for a long time,” he said. “It was a good situation for me to come in to, where I didn’t have traditional personnel.”
Although Pearl’s early Vol squads captured the fancy of the fans and won a lot of games, he figured he’d win more games with superior talent than with a unique system.
“Rather than recruiting to the system I have employed most of my career,” Pearl said, “we just decided to recruit the best players that we could, then adjust the system accordingly.”
In spite of the glut of size on his current roster, the coach promises that his team will continue to play at a reasonably brisk pace.
“We’re not Clydesdales; we’re not slowing it down like that,” he said. “We’re still running it. I’ve been a head coach for 18 years, and I think my teams have led the league in scoring 16 of those years. We’re still uptempo but we just may not be able to force tempo with a bigger lineup.”