Extreme makeover

Extreme makeover

It's difficult to imagine pass-happy Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach switching to a ground-hugging wishbone attack. Such a transformation simply seems too extreme.

The transformation Bruce Pearl has made this season, however, is probably on par with Leach switching to the wishbone. Tennessee's head basketball coach has abandoned virtually every concept that made his system distinctive.

Consider:

- Pearl teams typically play at a faster pace than anyone in college hoops. This year's Vols have begun playing at a fairly deliberate pace, however, as Saturday's 54-52 loss to Memphis clearly attests.

- Pearl teams typically extend defensively to make opponents wear themselves out working for shots. This year's Vols are playing off opponents in an effort to disguise their defensive shortcomings.

- Pearl teams typically exert fullcourt pressure on a regular basis to try and create turnovers. This year's Vols almost never press because it usually creates a layup at the other end of the floor.

- Pearl teams typically launch 3-pointers at a mind-boggling clip. This year's Vols have attempted just 35 treys in the past three games combined ... largely because they rank 11th among 12 SEC schools in 3-point accuracy.

- Pearl teams typically play 10 guys, since their depth and tempo tend to make opponents wilt down the stretch. This year's Vols are looking at a shorter bench because the tempo is less demanding.

Clearly, anyone who played for Pearl at Southern Indiana, at Wisconsin-Milwaukee or in his first three seasons at Tennessee would not recognize the style of play he is utilizing this season.

Although he insisted that "We still do some unconventional things," Pearl conceded today that "The pace is not helter-skelter. We tried to extend, and we couldn't guard."

Because Tennessee no longer is able to extend defensively, it no longer is able to sprint offensively.

"One of the things that has hurt our offense is the way we're defending," Pearl said. "We've slowed the tempo down. As a result, we're playing better defensively. But there are fewer fast-break opportunities. There are fewer possessions because we're not turning people over as much. As a result, when we get to the offensive end we're seeing more halfcourt defense."

Here's Tennessee's quandary: Playing a fast pace Jan. 3 at Kansas, the Vols scored 85 points but still lost by seven. Playing a slow pace Saturday against Memphis, they limited the Tigers to 54 points but again came out on the losing end.

"If we were to open things up a little bit more – push the tempo a little bit more – we wouldn't be guarding as well, but it would help our offense," Pearl noted. "So now we're trying to find that happy medium."

At 12-6, the Vols are medium – as in average – but they're anything but happy about it. Pearl admits he's in unfamiliar territory with this team.

"I've never played this slow," he said, "but I've never had a team as big that couldn't get out and extend defensively."

As a result, Bruce Pearl is playing a deliberate offense that ranks as the most bizarre development of sports year 2009 ... at least until Mike Leach switches to the wishbone.

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