Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is looking forward to returning to the sideline, even if it is for only one game. He may not be so anxious to watch Connecticut star Kemba Walker in person.
Pearl is allowed to coach the Volunteers on Saturday because they are facing a team from outside the SEC, and he'll look to lead them to their fourth win in as many tries against a ranked opponent this season when they visit the No. 8 Huskies.Pearl received an eight-game suspension from conference play for lying to NCAA investigators, and he has served half of that ban as the Vols have gone 2-2 to open their SEC slate."I try to treat it like an injury," Pearl said. "We're a man down, now we've got somebody back. We got healthy, and we'll be back down a man come next week."Pearl is only prohibited from being with the Vols (12-6) on game days against an SEC opponent through Feb. 5, and he said he's been analyzing his team's play and taking notes while watching the games on TV."I'm as much a fan as any Vol fan at the end," Pearl said. "The pad and paper are long gone by the time the game's over. I've long since left my couch, and I'm up there screaming and cheering and praying just like every other Vol fan."He'll get the chance to do those things from the bench Saturday while trying to figure out a way to contain Walker, who is second in the nation with 25.5 points per game.Walker struggled with his shooting against No. 7 Villanova on Monday, going a season-worst 6 for 18 from the field, but he still managed to score 24 points and hit a 10-foot floater with 2.5 seconds left that gave the Huskies (15-2) a 61-59 victory."It was one of those games somebody was going to win and as I said to the kids in the huddle, 'It might as well be us,'" coach Jim Calhoun said. "Kemba made sure that we did win the game."The Vols know they likely need to slow Walker to have any chance of winning, but they don't want to forget about the rest of the Huskies."Once you focus on Kemba the whole game, the other players go off," senior center Brian Williams said. "We've got a good game plan going into the game, so we've just got to focus to the best of our ability and play great defense."Tennessee's past four games have all come down to the wire, and it managed to post last-minute wins at home against Vanderbilt and at Georgia in its last two.Williams made a buzzer-beating shot off a rebound as he was falling to the floor to give the Vols a 59-57 victory over the Bulldogs on Tuesday night."We've had probably more close games this year than the last three or four years combined because of the (slower) tempo of the game and fewer possessions," Pearl said. "Therefore each possession becomes magnified."Tennessee also beat Villanova this season and has victories over then-No. 3 Pittsburgh, which handed UConn its first loss, and then-No. 21 Memphis in Pearl's last game.The Vols were the 11th-ranked team in the nation when they faced the No. 20 Huskies in their only previous meeting, a 65-51 victory for Tennessee in the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament.
Tennessee has been just 2-2 since starting conference play without Bruce Pearl. In their first 14 games this season - with Pearl - they outscored opponents by 6 points per game and beat 3 ranked teams.