Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
This interview with Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl is the fifth in a series of interviews with Division 1 head coaches conducted at camps this summer.
NEW YORK — Bruce Pearl knows the SEC East will be absolutely loaded this year.
With Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Tennessee all in the same division, the SEC East could be the toughest conference in all of college basketball.
“We could be a Top 10 team in the country and we could be the third best team in the SEC,” Pearl said last month at St. John’s. “It’s a great league.
“It’s loaded every year. With John [Calipari] at Kentucky, the bar’s been raised. Florida’s not been in the [NCAA] Tournament two years in a row. That’s not going to happen again. They got a lot of guys back.
“Wherever the bar is set, we all seem to rise to wherever the bar is set. We have beaten Florida seven of the last eight times. We finished ahead of Kentucky four straight years. We’re trying to go after our fourth SEC championship in five years, we’ve got an awful lot to play for. I’ve got to continue to keep Tennessee in a very competitive situation so that when you guys start talking about the SEC East, not only are you talking about Florida and Kentucky, but you also talk about Tennessee.”
The Vols went 21-13 last year and 10-5 in the SEC, falling to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAAs.
They return three double-digit scorers in senior wing Tyler Smith (17.4 ppg), senior big man Wayne Chism (13.7 ppg) and senior guard J.P. Prince (9.9 ppg).
“We got a veteran, veteran group,” Pearl said. “I got five seniors that have played a lot of basketball so I think once again this will be a very competitive season for the Vols.”
It was an eventful summer for Pearl, who captained the Maccabi USA team to a gold medal at the 18th Maccabiah Games in Israel in July. Danny Grunfeld, who played at Stanford and played professionally in Spain and is the son of former Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld, was named MVP of the tournament.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “To coach the game just for the love of the game and to be able to where ‘USA’ in red, white and blue and to be able to do it in my Jewish homeland was just off the charts. This is my first time winning it. We had only won the gold twice in 24 years. It was a good experience and obviously a great result.”
The team toured Israel for 20 days, ate a lot of hummus and shawarma and felt like they were in Southern California.
“It’s a beautiful country,” he said. “The landscape kind of reminds me of Southern California. It’s very hilly.
“When you walk through that Jaffa Gate and you go walk into the old city and you walk through that gate where Moshe Dayan walked through in 1967 after The Six Day War, it looks like what you think Israel’s supposed to look like. Having all the Christian sites and the Jewish sites and the Muslim sites all their together.
“I never felt unsafe. I would encourage people to go over there and visit. It’s an easy trip. They make it really easy on you and they really love tourism. It’s a seaside country. The whole country is on the Mediterranean.”
While Pearl was away, point guard Josh Selby of Baltimore (Md.) Lake Clifton decommitted, saying he had only visited Tennessee and Louisville and wanted to consider other options.
“I don’t think the decommitment had anything to with me leaving the country, at least I hope it didn’t,” Pearl said.
“These things happen. You want what’s best for the student-athlete and you want the student-athlete to make a decision for what’s best based on them.
“What hurts is when a decision is made and then you know that others are in there throwing their opinions at him to try to change his decision. I just don’t think there’s any place for that.
“It’s happened to me before and I don’t have any ill feelings. If the student-athlete wants to play for me, great. If they decide that they don’t for whatever reason, then that’s their decision.”
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.