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March 20, 2008
THE MODERATOR: We'll get started with the student-athletes. Take questions? Talk about the preparations coming here, changes and what the outlook of the team is. What's your approach to this tournament?
CHRIS LOFTON: Realizing that this is a one and done. You got to play your, this game tomorrow as if it is your last and that we prepared a lot. Watching film on American and the walk through and scouting, but just take it like a regular season game.
Q. Before you knew that you were going to play American, what did you know about the school? Did you know where it was? Had you seen them play this year? Did you have any familiarity with the school or the program at all?
JAJUAN SMITH: No, not really, not me personally. But we know that they're a great team because they're still playing in March and we can't take no opponent lightly.
TYLER SMITH: I've never seen them play on TV, but watching film, they're pretty good. They run a lot of ball screens and things like that. So, we got to play hard and make sure that we come out with a victory.
CHRIS LOFTON: I've heard of them before but I wasn't really familiar with their program and I didn't realize how good they were until we started watching them on film.
Q. JaJuan, you're probably going to see a lot of Carr tomorrow, now he's made even more threes than Chris has made, what do you have to do to stop him?
JAJUAN SMITH: Watch film on Chris and Carr together. Chris one of the best shooters in the country and he prepared me for this matchup for a long time. We have been together for four years, so I'm ready for the challenge.
Q. JaJuan, Tyler, both talk about this, how much do you guys play with a chip on your shoulder that you did not get a number one seed and you're having to be a number two seed as this tournament begins?
JAJUAN SMITH: This is a great chance for us to make a name for ourselves, not just individually, but for the team to show that we belong and what we did all season, that we deserve a one seed and it's just going, we just are going to use it for motivation throughout the tournament.
TYLER SMITH: I'm just happy to be playing again. Last year I wasn't playing at all. This year number two seed, I mean we're kind of upset we didn't get one, but we still got to keep playing. It's March, we're happy to play.
Q. For JaJuan, what do you remember about the Winthrop game a couple years ago and how big is that -- that you got that kind of a background on this type setting?
JAJUAN SMITH: That's where Chris hit the game winner. It was just a great memory and the first game is the toughest, just everyone is nervous and everyone just trying to make plays on both teams. So from that game being here and we have been here, done that. So we're just looking forward to this game.
Q. For Chris, the lack of history in Tennessee basketball in the post season positive history, anyway, how much of that is a motivating force for you guys, both for the town, for the school and for a lumps around the country?
CHRIS LOFTON: It's real motivating for us. Because we know Tennessee basketball is not known for post season play. We're not really known as a basketball school as other big schools. But this team is all about trying to make mystery and that's what we're out to do.
Q. I don't know how big this is if about you if you guys win tomorrow that's 30 wins. How big of a hurdle is that to have 30 wins in a season?
CHRIS LOFTON: 30 wins is great of course who wouldn't want to do that. But we know we got a tough task on our hands tomorrow and we got to be ready to play coming out from the start.
Q. Chris, what did you learn from the SEC tournament? In terms of taking care of business, winning, getting the job done as you go into this tournament now?
CHRIS LOFTON: We realize that no matter how good we have been in the regular season, all that that's out the window now. It's post season play, it's starting over. Everybody is 0-0. And everybody is playing for their lives right now because they realize that their season could be over at any time.
Q. For any of the guys, I know American really hasn't made a secret about it they're going to try to slow it down to. You guys got pretty use to that and how do you battle that? Do you just try to speed them up?
TYLER SMITH: Of course we want them to play our game, but at the same time we have been working a lot on our half court offense and to prepare for this type of game and this type of setting that's what you need to do.
Q. For Chris, when you saw the draw come out and you saw a 11: 15 starting time did you think that was pretty early?
CHRIS LOFTON: Yeah, it was different for us. We have been preparing that way all week though. Getting up early and eating breakfast and doing stuff early in the morning this week to prepare for tomorrow. So I think that we got used to the time and we'll be ready for tomorrow.
Q. For Chris, any thoughts of a possible matchup with Butler after what happened last year against them?
CHRIS LOFTON: Not really. We take one game at a time. We're worried about American right now.
Q. Have you guys gotten pretty used to teams trying to do that to you throughout the course of the year. I know Kentucky and a lot of others have been really determined to slow you guys down. Is that something that you're used to seeing?
JAJUAN SMITH: Yes, we know coming into this tournament a lot of teams going to try to make us play their ball, but we got to be stronger and make teams play our ball and try to overcome them and make them speed up and do things they don't want to do.
THE MODERATOR: Okay, guys. Thank you. Coach Pearl, we'll go ahead and start with an opening statement and then go right to questions.
BRUCE PEARL: We're excited about being here in Birmingham. In SEC country, representing the SEC in the NCAA tournament.
It was a good year in the league. With six teams advancing. Georgia going through the SEC tournament like they did, having to win those games, four in a row, two in the same day, playing the same year is very tough right now, very proud of the league. Florida carried the banner very well last couple of years, and now it's up to one of us to see if we can try to maintain that level of championship basketball play.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the coach.
Q. You've been David before, now you're Goliath, which role do you like more?
HEAD COACH BRUCE PEARL: I like Goliath because Goliath has better player years, bigger rocks, more guns.
I don't care. I'm just glad to be in it. I don't care under what circumstance, but if you gave me a choice, I'd rather be at Tennessee than Wisconsin, Milwaukee, nothing against them, but I would rather be a two seed than a 12 seed. But we just are very blessed to be in the tournament. And we'll play whatever role needs to be played.
Q. Talk about the point guard play and how that needs to probably pick up in this tournament. How critical is that?
HEAD COACH BRUCE PEARL: Well, we have won with good point guard play. We have not had great point guard play. And we will be playing against some great point guards. So, but we played against great point guards all year long. We managed to win.
So we have got some things that we plan on doing to try to improve our play at the position and we know this weekend we'll be challenged.
Q. I know you said in the past this team wasn't maybe as good a pressing team as some of your others, but now that you're going into your playing teams that aren't familiar with your system, you think you might be a little more apt to press in these, in this tournament?
HEAD COACH BRUCE PEARL: Yes, pressure defense is something that when you see it for the first or second time it can be more effective. Because not everybody does press.
Particularly, if you feel that there's a need to speed an opponent up, in looking at the three teams that we're playing, this weekend, with American's quick guards, Butler's got great senior guards, they might be difficult to speed up, and South Alabama, they play great going fast, so they may not be a team you want to speed up, so I still think you got -- we have to pick our spots.
But, the thing I like about having pressure defense is there will be a time in the game, or in the tournament, when we need to get either the tempo picked up or create turnovers. The fact that it's there, the fact that we have that weapon and the fact that you got to prepare for it, in and of itself makes pressing effective.
Q. Will you take a couple minutes for those that don't know the story about how you kept that bridge open to get Tyler Smith back into the state of Tennessee from Iowa?
COACH PEARL: The only thing that I can think of as far as keeping bridges open is there are times when in losing a recruiting situation that you just got to try to turn the page sometimes. And I made sure that when Tyler went to prep school at Hargrave, that he understood that I wished him well. And I was sorry that I had to do what I did. Representing the University of Tennessee. Because some things that were done, that were done wrong, by both, but let's try to move on. Now, you go have a great career son. I think a lot of you." And I made sure that he got that message. It wasn't to try to rerecruit him, because we never rerecruited him at Hargrave. And I suppose we could have. And then he happened to choose Iowa. And I was there for six years. And I had a lot of friends at Iowa who played ball there and same thing. I just reached out to them saying, hey, not that it makes anything, makes that big a difference, but tell him I hope he has a great career. And I thought he made a great choice. And Iowa is a great place.
I don't know that it had much to do with him coming back. I think Tennessee was where he always wanted to be. But sometimes in losing in recruiting I try to, try and lose with dignity.
Q. Before the SEC tournament Dave Odom was talking about the SEC being a great shooter's league. He thinks it has more great shooters than any other league and a lot of that is at the guard position. You mentioned guard play. Do you think having gone through the SEC that it prepares you for the caliber of guards you're going to play in this tournament?
COACH PEARL: Absolutely. And, also too, with playing same year and Memphis, Western Kentucky, we have seen great guards all the way through, but boy, it did seem like just about every team in the east and a few teams out west had great guard play. Great shooters. Great point guard play. So there's no question that we're prepared for whatever we'll see.
It's interesting, and this is something that I have shot across Chris and JaJuan's bow. I said last time I looked at the program you guys were listed as guards. I think you're pretty good, but you're obviously going to have to continue to play your way through this tournament so that somebody else might say Tennessee's got good guard play.
Q. It seemed early in the season when I saw Tyler Smith he had to, he was setting people up a lot. Did you have to prod him to start looking for shots a little more early in the game and quit doing that?
COACH PEARL: Yeah, he's just an unselfish player, he's a great teammate. And the first month or two of practice in the season he was learning the system. And learning where to go and who to look for and how to get open and just to try to understand and so he -- once he got a feel for what we do, then he was able to find his own ways to create and take advantage of some opportunities. He's a high basketball IQ guy.
He's a very unselfish player. Who does make his teammates better. Who now understands within the framework of our fast break and our offense, where his opportunities come from. And his opportunities to score are very productive opportunities. Because he shoots such a great percentage, he's got a high assist turnover ratio, and he makes good decisions. And Tyler Smith actually, his decision making sort of contributes to our guard play. It's like Dane Bradshaw was a point forward last year, well so is Tyler. Tyler's playing the same position as Dane. Tyler leads us in assists. He's just doing it from the power forward position instead of the point guard position. My job is to take my players and put them in positions to be successful to go to their strengths. Jordan Howell is not a playmaker. Not a criticism, he's just not a playmaker, Tyler is. We lead the nation and we're second in the nation in assists. Somebody's out there making plays.
Q. Is this where the coaches that have double-digit seeds make their bones, and where would you be if you hadn't had your success as a double-digit seed?
COACH PEARL: I would still be on that bus someplace, traveling to a Division II tournament. Your comment was about coaches making it, it's about players. It's about Stan Gerard in Division II or Chris Bowles or great players that I had at Southern Indiana. It's about the players I had at Wisconsin Milwaukee, Clay Tucker, Ronnie Jones, Dylan Page, Adrian Tiger, those players advanced in the NCAA tournament now I was their coach and I did my job and I helped them be successful, I suppose as a coach how you perform at this time of the year gets a little bit more attention. It gets a little bit more notice. But this coach doesn't get here without those players.
Q. Tennessee has not made a lot of positive history in the post season, specifically in the NCAA tournament, is that something that affects you matters to you, motivates you as well as the players in terms of the fabric of the program and where it's going?
COACH PEARL: Our team has embraced the history of Tennessee basketball. We're very, very aware of the fact that it was 41 years since last time we had won a regular season championship out right. We embraced it heading into the SEC tournament, but we were unable to win.
We understand that we have never been to the Elite 8 before. It's a place we would like to go. But there are 65, 64 other teams now that would like to go to the same place. Everybody here's a champion. There aren't many teams that aren't champions left in this field. We would definitely feel a great responsibility and a great opportunity, this is the best team I've taken into the tournament so far. This is the deepest team, the most talented team. And it's traveled the most difficult road to get here.
So now it's just a matter of whether or not we can play well here at the end and take advantage of it.
Q. Can you talk about American, what they do well and what you're going to have to do to combat that to have success tomorrow?
COACH PEARL: Well Carr is in the top 15 in three categories in the NCAA. 3 point percentage, 3 point makes, and free throw percentage. In fact, he makes 45 out of 50 free throws in the last few minutes of each game. So he's a great shooter.
You got to cover him before the catch. Mercer, was from St. Anthony's High School and a point guard, he will fear nothing. There's no matchup out there that he's concerned about. He's played against the best.
He's slippery, he's a tough, physical guy that can break you down. And he breaks everybody down to get those guys shots on that team.
Lay, he's an example of their, he's like their Dane Bradshaw, the guy that just plays so hard, gets every 50/50 ball, plays real productive, always trying to get closer to the basket. Nichols, the center, he may be 6'-5" but he's got a 7'-3" wing span and plays so much bigger. And then I think Jeff Jones having watched his team this year now on a lot of film, there's just not, there's nothing he's not seen before as a coach. So he's a great game coach. Their system, with staggers and ball screens and handoffs and spread and tempo, it puts Carr and Mercer in position to be successful. They don't have a lot of post game, because that's not their strength. So they will, they will run the shot clock down, they will keep, try to keep the score down in the 40s or 50s. We'll try to speed them up without hurting ourselves too much. And we'll take advantage of our size and try to go inside. Where we have the ability. And the advantage.
Q. A lot was made when Chris Lofton came out of high school I know you weren't there, but Kentucky and Louisville neither one of them offered him a scholarship. He was at Tennessee when you got there, what has he meant to the process of building this program to this point?
COACH PEARL: Chris Lofton will go down as one of the all time greatest players to ever wear the uniform. He'll join the likes of Ernie, Bernard King, Dale Ellis, Alan Houston. He's not, he's not done writing the book though. We have got more work to do. There's another chapter left in this book. And how far Chris Lofton is able to lead us will have something to say about just how magical a ride it's been. Because it's been spectacular to this point. Now we're talking about magic. And going some is place that a Tennessee basketball team has never been. He's our hardest worker, he's one of the best student-athletes you're ever going to find, everybody can root for Chris Lofton because he's such a great kid and does everything the right way. I cannot imagine what coaching a basketball team is going to be like without him. He has spoiled me. I can draw a play and we can get spacing and create a ball screen and but he's going to make the shot. He's got a great hunger for knowledge. And as far as the recruiting is concerned, way too much criticism was put upon Louisville and Kentucky when they did not take Chris Lofton. There were dozens, there were better players than Chris out there that they took that they should have taken. And the fact that Chris went and became a great player Kentucky or Louisville should not be blamed for that. Recruiting is not an exact science. Give Chris credit for what he's done. But there's some great players, Joe Crawford and Bradley are pretty good players at Kentucky. And they were better than Chris coming out of high school and they're and they were great players at Kentucky.
Q. Speaking of Chris Lofton, just if you reflected back with this team about the 2-15 matchup two years ago with Winthrop that took a Chris Lofton falling out of bounds do you think that's something that stuck with your seniors as they're leading these younger guys in as far as not overlooking American?
COACH PEARL: I don't think we'll overlook American because of American. The fact that they beat Maryland at Maryland. A Maryland team that beat North Carolina at North Carolina, the number one seed in this tournament. I would rather focus on the now. The only thing I'll shift gears to in the past is I'll say that two of the last four times this league has been a 13 seed, excuse me a 15 seed, Bucknell, you know, was able to beat Arkansas, they were able to beat Kansas. And the Patriot League has not dropped a first round contest by more than 11 years since 2000. This league has gone in and in the first round they have competed. American represents this league.
The because they keep the score down, and because they have got great guard play, and because they come from a league that has stayed close and a league that has done this, Winthrop wasn't in their league, I'm going to focus on that. This is most likely going to be a tighter ball game than what people expect because of those factors. I think I'll focus on that. We're a different team than we were a couple years ago. When we were playing Winthrop. And Winthrop is a much different team than American.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach Pearl.
End of FastScripts