Pearl doesn’t sound nervous about SEC return

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The SEC race just got a lot more entertaining. Bruce Pearl is back!

The league’s best quote – and Tennessee coach – returns from his eight-game SEC suspension in time for a trip to Kentucky. If you think Pearl would pass on the chance to crack a joke, you haven’t read any Bruce Pearl stories in the last four years.

“When Commissioner (Mike) Slive penalized me the eight games I think he originally wanted to do 10, but when he looked at the schedule and saw that I have to go to Rupp and the O’Dome, he decided to settle for just eight and make me go those two place,” Pearl joked Monday.

Pearl’s in a heap of NCAA trouble, but you gotta love a guy who’s not afraid of a little levity before bringing his team into an arena filled with 23,000 screaming fans. Guess that’s the only option when Scotty Hopson may not play and your squad’s one of the country’s more inconsistent teams around.

Which Tennessee team will show up Tuesday night? The one that beat Pitt, Georgia and Missouri State or the one that lost to Charlotte? At 15-8 overall and 5-3 in the SEC, the Vols don’t have much room for error.

“This team — all of them, starters, reserves, practice players, coaches — we have to recognize where we’re at,’’ Pearl told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “We’re a game out of first, or a game out of last, and we’re at a point on our schedule where in order to win we’re going to have to play better.’’

No kidding. Kentucky (16-6, 4-4) may have lost two straight, but hasn’t dropped one at home this season. Not that the Vols are scared of Rupp Arena. They just can’t figure out why it’s so hard for them to win in Lexington. Haven’t done it since 2006.

“Kentucky isn’t that loud; I’ve played in louder places,’’ forward Brian Williams told the News-Sentinel. “I can’t explain what it is about Rupp, but it’s something.

“I guess it’s the old ghosts in there messing with you.’’

If Tennessee figures out those ghosts, it could do more than signal good things for the rest of their season. It might even ensure Pearl returns for another season.

And that would be the most impressive result of all.

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