by David Cassilo / @dcassilo
In the offseason, Tennessee was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Now they are there for all the right ones.
A 78-68 win over No. 7 Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship has No. 24 Tennessee off to a 5-0 start despite a tumultuous offseason and lower than usual expectations.
“It would be good for people to write about these kids and how we play,” said Tennessee Head Coach Bruce Pearl. “We’re in the season right now. And I think the focus should be shifted to our season and where we’re at. Obviously I’m happy for the guys. We’ve handled some adversity. Now we have to handle some success.”
In September, Pearl admitted to several recruiting violations, and while the school waits for the NCAA’s decision on the matters, the SEC has already suspended Pearl for the first eight games of the conference schedule.
In the meantime, Pearl can only focus on the task at hand – winning games. So far, he has been able to get his team to block out the distractions.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” said Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright. “I know he’s a good guy. I do know it. I know he has integrity. This business is tough. It can get to you. He might have skipped, but I admire the way he’s handling all of it. His team, man, he’s doing a great job coaching.”
Wright’s team had been outscoring its opponent by over 25 points per game entering Friday night’s contest, but Tennessee’s stifling defense quieted a Villanova offense that had scored over 80 points in its last four games.
Villanova shot just 35 percent from the field for the game, and the team’s leading scorer this season, senior guard Corey Fisher, managed just three points.
“They played really aggressive,” said Villanova senior guard Corey Stokes. “Coach told us that they were going to come out and make it a street fight. That’s what they did.”
On the offensive end, it was another terrific performance from junior guard Scotty Hopson, who finished with a team-high 18 points and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
After the victory, Hopson was quick to acknowledge how far Tennessee had come and where it can still go.
“We worked all year to get to this point,” Hopson said. “We’re still learning. Still battling. Still just want to win championships, come out and compete every day. It’s a whole process to get to where we want to be.”
A big part of the team’s success can also be credited to freshman forward Tobias Harris. Although he may not be getting the headlines of other freshmen in the country, Harris has been a reliable presence in the starting lineup.
Harris, a New York native who was playing in front of many friends and family at Madison Square Garden, finished with 15 points and nine rebounds and earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
Along with Hopson, Harris is making some much-needed positive headlines for Tennessee. The offseason issues are far from a finished story but neither is this Tennessee team’s season.