- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Villanova is a potential Big East champ and Final Four team. Virginia Commonwealth is the cuddly mid-major attempting to make some noise on the big stage that can resonate again on Selection Sunday. UCLA is, well, UCLA. Whatever stage the Bruins are in during their rebuilding process is always a storyline.
But let there be no doubt, Tennessee is the story at the NIT Season Tip-Off, which holds its semifinals Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Well, check that -- Bruce Pearl is the story. On Tuesday, he spent 45 minutes being grilled by the New York media contigent at a press luncheon. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, Pearl was later asked by a UT staffer where he went to eat and he replied, "At the media luncheon -- they had me for lunch.''
Even if nothing had occurred in the offseason, he would've drawn interest here in the Big Apple because of his big personality. But the NCAA investigation and subsequent revelation that Pearl had lied to NCAA investigators about hosting high school juniors at his house will shadow Pearl throughout the season. And there's little doubt it'll overshadow his own team.
The reason? For one, there are constant reminders. The season basically started with the teary news conference that Pearl and his assistants had done wrong and were ready to pay the consequences with a salary dock ($1.5 million over five years for Pearl), staggered restrictions for off-campus recruiting (a year for Pearl) and the controversial Sept. 24 start date of the penalty, which allowed Tennessee to still recruit the highly touted Adonis Thomas (who eventually signed with Memphis) among others.
Then came news that Pearl didn't have a contract anymore. Then came last week's decision by SEC commissioner Mike Slive to suspend Pearl for the first eight SEC game days in January. The penalty doesn't exclude Pearl from coaching the team in practices, traveling or relaying game strategy to the assistant coaches (he can call them during halftime). He just can't be with the team two hours before tip and until an hour after the game.
Oh, and he can coach the Vols at Connecticut on Jan. 22 because that game isn't part of the SEC schedule.
Pearl is right in saying that the actions are unprecedented in a proactive manner by the school and commissioner. It's also right to say that historically someone who is faced with a charge of misleading investigators is generally fired or forced out. But Tennessee has made it clear that Pearl is its coach for the long term, and he is still immensely popular among Vols fans.
Still, the notice of allegations hasn't even been received yet (likely next month since it will also include football and baseball). That means there is still more to come on this story since Tennessee has to respond to the allegations and a meeting with the committee on infractions may not come until February at the earliest.
But there are games to play and, as Pearl said Sunday, the Volunteers are still a work in progress and aren't a great defensive team yet. (Who is?) The NIT is the last campus-to-neutral site tournament that doesn't have predetermined semifinals. So the NIT received Virginia Commonwealth instead of Wake Forest to play opposite Tennessee. That's fine. VCU is a possible NCAA team. Wake is not and has already lost three home games (Stetson, Winthrop and 90-69 to VCU).
So if we can put aside all the talk of Pearl and distractions, we should have a pretty solid game between the Vols and Rams, followed by Nova-UCLA. Here are a few other things to keep an eye on at MSG:
VCU's latest stars: Regardless of coach, there always seems to be studs producing for Virginia Commonwealth. Think Eric Maynor. Think Larry Sanders. This time coach Shaka Smart has a few. Joey Rodriguez and Bradford Burgess are already producing at a high clip, averaging 18.3 and 17.0 points respectively. And Brandon Rozzell isn't far behind at 16.7. As for Rodriguez, all he does is lead the nation in assists per game (10.3). Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said the Rams, averaging 86 ppg in the early going, are very much like Tennessee and said this game should be an up-and-down affair.
Another elite freshman in this class: The Vols picked up one of the top players in the class of 2010 in 6-8 Long Island native Tobias Harris. So far he has not disappointed, leading Tennessee with 16.3 points and 5.3 rebounds. Harris should be a tough matchup for any of the three teams. But what should be interesting to track is how Harris handles the spotlight for the first time. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes didn't fare all that well when it shined on him in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Kentucky's Terrence Jones is enjoying the sunlight in Maui. Now it's Harris' turn.
Melvin Goins' status: Tennessee's starting point guard injured his hip during the win over Missouri State. UT has veterans on the perimeter in Goins, Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum, but the depth is young. This will be a tough environment for the Vols if they have to rely too much on youth in the backcourt.
Villanova's next big name: The Wildcats enter the event as the favorite. You could argue they are the clear favorite as the one team in New York that can claim to be a potential Final Four team. Part of that is the natural progression of the Villanova wing. Coach Jay Wright has produced plenty of them over the years and the next on the list is Maalik Wayns. Sure, Corey Fisher is the team's leader and best player, but Wayns has star potential.
Who won't be there? Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston is suspended, pending an assault case. That means the Cats are a bit thinner in the frontcourt. There is still plenty to be intrigued by as Nova still has options with veteran Antonio Pena, but the two players to keep an eye on most may be Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton. If those two develop here early, the Wildcats can be a force come March.
Most intriguing team: It's UCLA. The Bruins, who beat Pacific without injured Malcolm Lee (ankle), have won three home games against Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine and Pacific. A season ago, the Bruins were losing to teams like that to start the season. UCLA has two newcomers who are already making an impact: guard Lazeric Jones and center Joshua Smith. Scrappy Reeves Nelson is averaging 19.3 and 9.7 rebounds a game, a somewhat surprise spike in production. Tyler Honeycutt, who could have made significant progress a season ago had he not been injured, is second on the team in scoring. The Bruins are playing with confidence and still forming their identity. This isn't a star-studded roster, but there are pieces here to make this team appear like a top-three team in the Pac-10. But how the Bruins handle these two games in New York will be a barometer for how they'll fare during the rest of the nonconference season, including that looming Dec. 2 trip to Kansas.
What will we learn in New York this week? I'm not sure much will change with Villanova and Tennessee. But if VCU reaches the final or wins the event, the Rams will be treated more seriously and be on the shelf of potential NCAA-bound teams come March. If UCLA wins this event, the Bruins and the much-maligned Pac-10 would get a nice boost in its effort to improve the conference's public perception and standing with the selection committee.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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