- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

KNOXVILLE, TENN. (AP) - Bruce Pearl was a lot more comfortable addressing the media Wednesday talking about basketball than when he acknowledged lying to NCAA investigators a few weeks ago.

“It’s my favorite time of the year … (with) the development of the players individually and the challenge of putting them all together and seeing if you can become a competitive, championship basketball team,” Pearl said.

Pearl didn’t directly address the NCAA investigation that was made public in September when he revealed he had provided misleading information to investigators. The NCAA was looking into allegations that Pearl improperly hosted a recruit at his home and that he and his staff made an excessive number of phone calls to recruits.

Tennessee won’t receive notice of allegations from the NCAA until at least December. If Pearl, who could be facing a charge of unethical conduct, is bothered by the looming allegations, he isn’t letting on to his players.

“He’s the same, enthusiastic coach. Nothing’s changed,” redshirt junior guard Cameron Tatum said. “He’ll still be out there yelling and stomping his feet. (The coaches) have done a great job with handling it, so it appears nothing has changed and everybody can just go about their day and just play ball and not have that cloud over their head.”

Instead of thinking about what could happen to their coach or their team, the Volunteers are trying to figure out how they can make a repeat trip to the NCAA regional finals this season or go one step farther to the Final Four.

The Vols had never been to a regional final until last season, where they lost 70-69 to Michigan State after Scotty Hopson missed a free throw and J.P. Prince couldn’t get a decent game-ending shot off.

Prince and fellow team leaders Wayne Chism and Bobby Maze are gone now, leaving Hopson, now a junior, as one of the leaders of a vastly different-looking Tennessee team. Hopson hasn’t forgotten what it felt like at the free throw line in March.

“Every time I go into the gym to shoot free throws I think about it, it’s in the back of my mind,” he said. “But at the same time, I’ve got to let that go. It’s always in my mind, but we’re working to get back to that level and go farther.”

The Vols have a lot of new faces on the bench, which has a full 14 scholarship players for the first time in several seasons. He landed top forward prospect Tobias Harris while also signing guards Jordan McRae and Trae Golden and adding Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon and UNC-Wilmington transfer John Fields.

Last year’s team was able to turn another troubling time for the program into a positive. Tatum, center Brian Williams, point guard Melvin Goins and senior forward Tyler Smith were arrested on alcohol, drug and gun charges midway through the season.

Pearl dismissed Smith and suspended the rest for multiple games, but the team still went on the improbable run that included wins over two No. 1 teams _ Kansas and Kentucky _ and the trip to the NCAA regional finals.

Tatum said this year’s team could use the negative attention that’s been on the program during the offseason as a push to do well on the court. He also doesn’t think it’s necessary with the kind of attitude all the Vols had during offseason workouts.

“I definitely think we don’t need it. We’re here to play basketball, and we really can’t control the things that go on off the court,” he said. “That was the same thing that happened last year: there was an off-the-court situation, but when it came time to step on the floor we came together as a team, and the coaching staff did a great job of holding us together as a team, and I just think it’s our turn to return the favor.”

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