The shadow of Bruce Pearl isn’t hanging over tonight’s game.
Tonight, Rick Barnes and the basketball Vols, winners of three straight and surging onto the NCAA tournament bubble, head to Auburn Arena to take on Bruce Pearl and his Auburn Tigers, currently 14-7 this season. Bruce and the Tigers bounced back nicely from a complete annihilation earlier last week at the hands of South Carolina with a solid road win at TCU on Saturday.
The stage is set tonight for a sneaky important game between two bubble teams. A win for Auburn would give them their second top 50 RPI win of the season and move up in the conference standings; Tennessee would get their fourth straight win overall, push their conference record over .500 and add a fourth road win over a top 100 RPI team.
The stakes seem large (enough) for January basketball, and the best coach in modern Tennessee history will be on the opponent’s sideline. Still, it feels like this game has sneaked up on fans. The date was never circled on the calendar. No one was looking ahead to this game, nor was it lingering over the program’s head like a dark cloud of nostalgia.
The Bruce Pearl craze is officially over.
It has been 2,147 days since Bruce Pearl last manned the sideline as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. 5 years, 10 months, and 14 days since the Vols thirty-point blowout loss at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines. The end of Bruce’s Tennessee career ended equally as magnificently disastrous as the beginning of his tenure was brilliant- outscored 42-16 in the second half on 26% shooting, 2-14 from the three-point line.
There’s no real need to implement any type of Bruce Pearl or Tennessee basketball timeline. Everyone remembers the details. It was sad. Tennessee basketball kind of sucked for most of the following 2100 days with the exception of about four or five weeks.
Tennessee is currently in the process of not sucking for the last two weeks and hopes to continue that over the second half of the season. Refreshingly, the team’s on-court performance seems to finally be the main focus of the fan base.
Jordan Bone hasn’t played well during this stretch, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance with an eye towards the future. Grant Williams- dog- has played like Tennessee’s best freshman basketball player since Tobias Harris. Williams is averaging 15.6 points and 4.6 rebounds over the three-game winning streak. John Fulkerson looked like a solid starter before injury.
The future looks bright, but the present isn’t dim. The Vols have a legitimate shot at the NCAA tournament and a top 4 finish in the SEC. The Vols need to get to 19 wins for a realistic shot at an at-large bid- a feat that Pearl’s last basketball team accomplished at 19-14. A loss tonight would hurt, not because ghosts of the past, but because of what it means for the 2017 season.
Tonight, when Tennessee and Auburn tip off, Bruce Pearl won’t feel like the main story anymore. Because he’s not.