Pearl's "prodigal sons" could be Brian Williams
, Cameron Tatum
and Melvin Goins
. Each was suspended in connection with the infamous Jan. 1 traffic stop - Williams missing nine games, Tatum and Goins four each. Each was slow working his way back into the playing rotation following his reinstatement. But each is now contributing significantly for the 16th-ranked Vols, who carry a 22-7 overall record and 10-5 SEC mark into Saturday night's regular-season finale at Mississippi State
Tatum has been very productive lately. After scoring 13 points in just 15 minutes Feb. 23 at Florida, he contributed 9 points and 5 rebounds in 12 minutes Feb. 27 against Kentucky, then produced 12 points and 3 assists in 21 minutes last night against Arkansas.
"I think Cameron's got some toughness to him," Pearl said. "I think it's a great time of the year for Cameron to be stepping up and playing well. He's excited about being out there and playing more.
"He's still got to focus defensively. He's not the fleetest afoot, so he's got to keep bearing down on that. He needs to be mindful that, as he gets 21 minutes, he's got to continue to guard."
Goins was so impressive while scoring 14 points in Tennessee's Feb. 13 loss at Kentucky that he started the next three games. After making just 2 of 15 shots during that span, however, he is back to playing a relief role and back to playing well. He hit 3 of 3 shots in the rematch with Kentucky last Saturday and made 4 of 5 shots last night vs. Arkansas.
"I thought Melvin played really well off the bench," Pearl said. "Melvin had 9 points, 3 assists and played good defense."
Williams has started the past three games, averaging 6.3 rebounds per game. He's no scoring threat but he contributed a team-best 5 assists last night against Arkansas.
"Brian is a smart player," Pearl said. "He has a very high basketball IQ at both ends of the floor. He's a really good passer. He's a real good defender, a good rebounder. The thing I'd like Brian to do a better job of is scoring around the basket."
Because teams get less rest between games in tournament play, depth is critical in March. That's why the return of prodigal sons Williams, Tatum and Goins could be a huge boost for the Vols. The availability of Tatum, who followed his suspension with an ankle injury, looks to be especially significant.
"He just gives us more dimensions to our team," senior point guard Bobby Maze said. "He can stretch the defense with his shot. He can get to the basket. And the most important thing is he's healthy now. Now he has that explosion when he gets to the basket.
"Defensively, he can guard 1, 2 or 3. I always felt that Cam was one of the best players on the team. Now, with him coming back in the rotation and being healthy, he's getting a chance to showcase what he can do."
Tatum may not be the quickest Vol but his 6-6 frame, his long arms and his leaping ability enable him to be dynamic on offense and disruptive on defense.
"I think the biggest thing people don't notice about Cam is that he's constantly talking on the defensive end - calling help-side and screens," Maze said. "He's probably the loudest person on the team.
"Having him back is going to be a wonder. You'll see as we go into this tournament how much he can do for us, the healthier he gets."
If you crossed a classic TV sit-com with the New Testament you'd have a show called "My Three (Prodigal) Sons." Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl could play the Steve Douglas role once filled by Fred MacMurray.