Despite having to kick his best player off the team this season and only having six scholarship players on the roster at one point in the year, Bruce Pearl led his team on a tremendous NCAA Tournament run and showed why he is one of the best coaches in the country. Going into the tournament, many people were putting them on upset alert, including myself. They had been playing without their best player since mid-January and despite having some big wins on their resume, they also had a couple of head scratching losses as well. I really didn’t even think they were going to win their opening round game against San Diego State, let alone advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history. However, that’s exactly what they did. Led by Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince, the Volunteers got through every team that stood in their way en route to the Elite Eight, including Ohio State. However, thanks to a key free throw by Michigan State’s Raymar Morgan in the closing seconds, the Volunteers missed out on going to Indianapolis by just one point.
Bruce Pearl joined ESPN 1000 in Chicago to talk about whether or not he still feels the sting of the loss against Michigan State, whether or not he considers this season a success, what he thinks about reseeding in the tournament, and whether or not he will be watching the Final Four.
Are you appreciating the season or thinking about what could have been?
“Oh, I think we’re gonna be in that phase of what could have been for a long time. That’s the nature of coaches. Very proud of my team and my program. We played some great basketball down the stretch. There’s nobody in Indy that’s an overwhelming favorite, and we coulda been there and had as good a chance as anybody being the 3rd best team in the SEC. So yeah, we’re terrifically disappointed.”
How gratifying do you expect this season to be?
“Well yeah, I think it will be. I think what happened was in Saint Louis we played against the best the Big 10 had, and we played well. They were well played games, clean games, and enjoyable games to watch. From that standpoint, when you go up against Ohio State and Michigan State, two programs that have such great appeal and such great respect, and for Tennessee to come in there and play such great basketball and as beautiful basketball as we did, it’s gratifying ‘cause we represented ourself, the University, and the SEC well. But it doesn’t change the fact they all didn’t bounce our way sometimes, and it bounced their way. We didn’t make certain plays in the end and they keep going while we go home.”
So now you have to sit and watch what happens
“No, no, I will not be watching it. I can’t watch it; I won’t watch it. You might have to sit there on the sidelines and watch it, but I will not be watching it. I might listen to it on ESPN 1000, but I will not be watching it.”
So what do you do instead?
“You drive back to Knoxville and you pout. I won’t put myself through that situation. I have great respect for Tom Izzo and for getting his team there. I was in the Horizon league at one time, possibly one of the poster children for the Horizon at one point at Wisconsin Milwaukee, so very, very proud and happy for Butler and the Horizon League, who is hosting the Final Four in Indy.”
Are you surprised MSU is not seeded higher by oddsmakers?
“We were seeded 16th when the Sweet 16th was set – the talking heads believed we did not belong. To think that maybe we’re the 16th best team out of 16, but there were suggestions that we didn’t belong, and you know what, that’s not ok. And obviously all we did was prove we did belong. As far as Michigan State is concerned, maybe it’s a knock on Tennessee, but what did MSU do to get to the final four? All they did was beat Northern Iowa and Tennessee. They didn’t have to beat Kansas or Ohio State. They beat a 9 seed and a 6 seed. So I think MSU is still going to have to prove something. Butler’s a 5, and their road really went through Kansas State – well they did beat Syracuse, so I can see why that win is thought of as bigger than Northern Iowa and Tennessee.”
What do you think of reseeding the Final Four?
“It’s a great question. I think they seed it based on 1 through 4 originally, so if Kansas makes it out of the Midwest Region, and makes it out to the Final Four and plays Syracuse, and instead they get Butler, I don’t think they should reseed it, no. Reseed it? Now we’re just gonna get more talking heads and hey, forget about it. Those are the guys that screwed up from the beginning, and I don’t wanna give them a chance to screw it up again.”
Did you think it was a foul at the end?
“If you watch it in slow motion, it was clean; but Raymar Morgan got the ball deep, and when you get the ball in there deep, the offense has the advantage with the whistle. So I got no problem with the whistle. I would have expected it had it gone the other way. You don’t look at it in hindsight or in replay. Especially from the angle the official had, not that he was out of position, but the ball was in there deep and there was just too much action inside and he could not see if the ball was blocked cleanly. Just too much advantage-disadvantage situation, and I think 8 out of 10 times they blow the whistle.”
Listen to Bruce Pearl on ESPN 1000 with Waddle and Silvy here (Audio begins 01:23:00 into the podcast)