Commentary

Point made for Tennessee guards

Originally Published: March 23, 2008
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Late in regulation Sunday of Tennessee's 76-71 overtime victory against Butler, Bruce Pearl looked his players in their collective eyes and made a plea.

"I told them to bail me out, because I didn't close the game out the right way offensively," Pearl recounted. "Whether I believed it or not, I wanted to give them something to rally around. I didn't want them blaming themselves. I wanted them to put the blame on me.

"Now bail me out."

Pearl's bold and unconventional decision to shake up his point guard rotation just as the NCAA tournament began had worked out OK for much of Sunday, as 6-foot-7 sophomore J.P. Prince earned his first start of the season and gave the Vols a different look up top.

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Prince
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJ.P Prince found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing point guard in Tennessee's win over Butler.
But Prince turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions inside the final 45 seconds of regulation (his fifth and sixth turnovers of the game), giving the Bulldogs a chance to win it with 4.1 seconds remaining.

Butler guard Mike Green went slicing to the basket on the other end, but lost the ball as he was going up against the taller Prince.

The Vols had new life, and Pearl opted for a new point guard in overtime.

Ramar Smith, who sat the final 11:54 of regulation after picking up his fourth foul, played the entire overtime period. Prince never returned. And Jordan Howell, who's been bumped down to third in the pecking order at the point, also played some key minutes in the second half while Smith was on the bench.

If you'll remember, Smith didn't play at all in the first half of the Vols' first-round win over American University, and Howell didn't play at all in the second half.

Confused?

You're not the only one. Even some of the Tennessee players chuckled at how it has all played out, but nobody was second-guessing their coach or doubting the results.

"With the type of team we've got, we feed off of each other," said senior guard JaJuan Smith, who sank four straight free throws in the final 13.6 seconds of overtime to finish the Bulldogs. "But if somebody would have come to me in December and said we'd be rotating like this at point guard with somebody who hadn't really played it all season, I wouldn't have believed it.

"But, hey, they're doing their job when their numbers are called, and we're going with whoever's in there."

Who says you have to have a dominant point guard to make the Sweet 16?

"I told them to bail me out, because I didn't close the game out the right way offensively. Whether I believed it or not, I wanted to give them something to rally around. I didn't want them blaming themselves. I wanted them to put the blame on me.

--Bruce Pearl

This much we know: Nobody's going to question Pearl, not after he's led the Vols to their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance for the first time in school history.

His take on the whole matter is pretty simple. The Vols simply weren't going to win a championship with Ramar Smith and Howell sharing 40 minutes at the point, and Pearl was also looking for a way to get more minutes for the athletic Prince, who spent most of this season at the 3 position.

One of the many things that Pearl has done best in reviving the Vols' program is finding the right buttons to push with his players. They believe in him, no matter how radical his approach might seem.

It's not every day that a No. 2-seeded team starts tinkering with its point guard play heading into the NCAA tournament.

Still, when Pearl called Ramar Smith's number to start the overtime, he was ready, even though he has struggled mightily the past few weeks.

He responded with a strong drive to the basket to tie the game at 68-68 with 1:25 to play and later put the Vols ahead 72-68 on a pass ahead from Chris Lofton.

"Ramar stayed focused, and give Ramar's teammates credit," Pearl said. "This team is close and rely on one another. Ramar doesn't want to let his family down. These are his teammates."

As for stepping on anybody's feelings, Pearl can only shrug.

"I've got a job to do, and I'm not the most popular guy in that locker room, I guarantee you," he said. "But I've got to do my job, and they've got to handle it. I thought that team handled the adjustments and the juggling very well."

Sophomore forward Tyler Smith, who like Prince was one of two key transfers for the Vols this season, said the strength of this team is being able to adjust.

"We have great personnel, but guys are willing to play wherever as long as it helps us get to where we want to go," said Smith, who had 15 points and eight rebounds. "It's called being a team."

Nobody counts shots. Nobody counts minutes. Nobody counts points.

What they count is wins, and the Vols (31-4) now will take their shot at doing something no Tennessee team has ever done -- advance to the Elite Eight. To get there, the Vols will have to beat Louisville in Charlotte on Thursday.

Fittingly, Tyler Smith might have been the one to save his team with a spectacular block of an A.J. Graves drive with 39 seconds to play. Graves looked like he had a clear path to the basket, but Smith came out of nowhere to swat the ball off the backboard.

It was extremely close to goaltending, and even Smith admits he was half-waiting to hear a whistle.

"I thought they were going to call it," Smith said. "I'm surprised they gave it to me ... and happy they did."

Chris Low covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnclow@aol.com.

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