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By LARRY VAUGHT
Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl thinks Missouri, Florida and Tennessee could all be good enough to beat Kentucky in Southeastern Conference play this year. However, he still has no doubts that the Wildcats will be the league’s best overall team.
“They are so talented, so deep and John Calipari does the best job of any coach in country at getting kids to play hard and unselfishly and accept responsibility of what it means to play in that uniform,” said Pearl, who will work as an ESPN analyst this season.
However, Pearl does have one warning.
“John doesn’t have as much help coaching this team as he had a year ago. He doesn’t have Darius Miller, Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb, guys who could tell the freshmen last year not to pay attention to how John was saying things but what he was saying,” Pearl said. “John can go off on kids and challenge them. He won’t have those veteran players this year to tell the young guys not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain but to pay attention to the message he has.”
Calipari has not lost a home game in three seasons at Kentucky. Pearl says that could change, especially in SEC play where Tennessee, Missouri and Florida all come to Rupp Arena.
“I just think it will be difficult to maintain that streak of not losing at home. Young players can be more inconsistent. Will they guard and rebound every night? Will they make clutch free throws every night, something it seems like UK has always done under John? It will be by far his youngest team and they have so many pieces that have to come together that they may well have an off night at home,” Pearl said.
Pearl said he doesn’t believe Rupp Arena intimidates opposing players. Instead, he thinks the 23,000 fans elevate the home team’s play.
“I never felt like we were intimidated by being there. Kentucky fans were so into the game and so knowledgeable and you would have 1,000 people around the floor when you had your lay-up line. Games are always on national TV. It just seems to me that Kentucky always elevates it play at home,” Pearl, who coached for 33 years, said.
As he did when he was coaching, Pearl emphasized how emotional playing in Rupp Arena always was for him.
“My eyes would water when I just walked into Rupp Arena. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I am coaching in Rupp Arena in front of these fans.’ It was quite as honor,” he said. “They honor the game in Kentucky. I have never coached for Kentucky. I have always coached against Kentucky going back to my days of competing against Kentucky Wesleyan.
“Kentucky was always so hard to beat, but it was the team I wanted to beat. I wanted to leave the building wanting UK fans to go, ‘You know, that team played hard and that team thought it had chance to win in our building.’ We didn’t. We only one won time in five tires. There was one occasion were embarrassed. I apologized to Kentucky fans that even though they beat us by three touchdowns, I know they were hoping for a better game and we did not give to it them.”
Pearl insists he’ll bring that same honesty and energy to his work with ESPN — and he’s hoping to get assigned to work a game in Rupp Arena.
“I don’t know about criticizing or second guessing coaches, but I will go over options. I will discuss what might be going through the coaches’ minds. Hopefully I will speak from my head as much as my heart,” Pearl said. “I want to be able to tell the viewers what to expect next and draw on my years as a coach to do that and hopefully make it fun for them to anticipate what might be getting ready to happen.”