CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Bruce Pearl wanted to talk about Tennessee super freshman Tobias Harris, Michigan’s motion offense or the Wolverines 1-3-1 zone defense.
Instead, the embattled Volunteers coach was peppered with questions Thursday about his job status a day after his athletic director left the door open to dumping Pearl after the season.
While Pearl acknowledged the tone and timing of Mike Hamilton’s radio interview in which he said “the jury is still out” on his career at Tennessee was unexpected, he refused to entertain thoughts that Friday afternoon’s second-round matchup with Michigan in the West Regional could be his final one on the job.
“When you put yourself in a position where you provide false or misleading information to the NCAA and you go through an NCAA investigation, you put yourself in a position where you’re going to be evaluated at the end of the year,” Pearl said. “So that’s what our status is.
“The announcement (Wednesday) publicly came as a bit of a surprise. But if that’s where we are than that’s where we’re at.”
The ninth-seeded Volunteers (19-14) are dealing with another distraction in a season of spectacular highs and lows as they prepare to face the No. 8 seed Wolverines (20-13).
“We’ve had our ups and downs this year, too. We had a 1-6 stretch to start out the Big Ten season,” Michigan forward Zack Novak said. “We know they’re a team that’s capable of being very, very good.”
Just not lately.
Not only have memories of Tennessee’s rise to No. 7 in the country after wins over Connecticut and Pittsburgh faded into a stretch of seven losses in the past 11 games, Pearl has seemingly lost the support of his athletic director amid the NCAA probe on recruiting that caused him to be suspended for eight Southeastern Conference games.
When asked if Pearl would be the coach next season, Hamilton told WNML-AM in Knoxville that “we don’t know the answer today.” Pearl, who has admitted to lying to investigators, said Thursday that “up until recently” he was under the assumption he would be able to defend himself in a June NCAA hearing while still Tennessee’s coach.
“And that still may be the case,” said Pearl, who forfeited $1.5 million in pay over four years and is working without a contract. “The announcement was I’m going to be evaluated. How much of a departure from what’s been said? I’ll find out when I get evaluated.”
While Hamilton declined further comment Thursday through a school spokesman and Pearl said he wouldn’t discuss conversations with his boss, a school-record sixth consecutive NCAA tournament berth has been overshadowed.
Pearl acknowledged discussing all the tumult with his team as players entered Time Warner Cable Arena Thursday. It’s the site of one of Tennessee’s low points – an inexplicable 49-48 loss to Charlotte (10-20) in December.
“If we had gone undefeated this season, we would not have learned or grown half as much as a lot of the things that we’ve had to go through this year,” Pearl said he told the players. “But let’s learn from some things. Let’s learn from my mistakes. Let’s remember not to put yourself in this position again, like I did.”
Despite the turmoil, Tennessee has talent. Scotty Hopson brings experience to the backcourt. Harris is one of the top forwards in the country and will have a big height and length advantage over Novak and the Wolverines.
“Right now we’re boxing out anybody we see. If you get in that hallway on the way back I’m going to box you out,” Michigan coach John Beilein told a reporter. “They are tremendous offensive rebounders. Somebody asked me if it would concern you. It would concern the Boston Celtics if they had to box these guys out.”
Beilein, a former chairman of the NCAA’s ethics committee, claimed to have little knowledge of Pearl’s case because he’s been consumed with his own team, which lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals.
“Hang with me for one day – I had to force myself to go to CNN sometimes just to follow the tragedy in Japan,” Beilein said. “It’s very hard to worry about anybody else’s issues right now.”
In his fourth season, Beilein has Michigan in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years after a 10-year drought – despite having no seniors. Behind sophomore point guard Darius Morris, freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr., and Beilein’s complex offense, Michigan may have just enough momentum and depth to begin Tennessee’s offseason of uncertainty.
“The challenge of guarding John Beilein’s offense is much, much, much greater than the challenge of getting our guys through any kind of distraction,” Pearl said. “I promise you this.”
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