Before speaking with a even-larger-than-usual group of reporters after Thursday’s practice in Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl reminded the throng that he couldn’t discuss specifics of an NCAA investigation into his recruiting tactics.
Tennessee junior guard Scotty Hopson says the Vols are "dealing with so much on the basketball floor that it's hard to think about what's going on off the basketball floor," referring to allegations of NCAA rules violations committed by UT and coach Bruce Pearl.
His players opined a tad, though, and their thoughts hadn’t changed since they spoke with GVX247 after Tuesday’s win at 18th-ranked Vanderbilt.
In short, the Volunteers and their coaches have grown accustomed to everyone around them talking about the NCAA investigation, but they claim to ignore most of it and focus on the game.
“We stick to basketball,” said junior guard Scotty Hopson, UT’s leading scorer. “We’re student-athletes, and that’s the main two things we’re worrying about — being efficient in the classroom and being efficient on the court. We don’t even bring (the NCAA) up half the time. Guys are not conscious of it. We’re dealing with so much on the basketball floor that it’s hard to think about what’s going on off the basketball floor.”
Hopson said he’s been pleasantly surprised that fellow students on campus hadn’t brought up the matter much, either — which is why, in many ways, the Vols’ star admitted “we needed that one” in Nashville.
“People are talking about the Vandy win,” Hopson said. “People are saying, ‘Good win, good win.’ As long as they’re cheering us on, we’re going to go out there and continue to compete every night.”
As senior guard Josh Bone said, “it’s not like this is all new.”
“It’s not a distraction,” said Bone, who didn’t score at Vanderbilt but played stellar defense on SEC player of the year candidate John Jenkins. “It’s been going on all throughout the season, so we’re over it. We just want to play basketball. Nothing different.”
Senior center Brian Williams said “nobody on this team” seemed even the slightest bit stressed about the situation the past few days.
“Nobody on this team (is affected)," Williams said. "When we get on this court, all that matters is that Tennessee orange, and what we’re going to do to get a victory. I think the coaching staff did their best job they’re capable of doing of keeping that focus away from us.
“I don’t think nobody is worried about what’s going on except the media right now. I don’t think there’s going to be a decision for a while, so we ain’t worried about nothing except Mississippi State right now.”
NO STEELE FOR STATE
Mississippi State freshman guard Jalen Steele will travel with his team for Saturday’s game, but the former Knoxville Fulton High School star won’t play.
Officials confirmed Thursday that Steele will miss the rest of the season with a torn left ACL and meniscus. He suffered the injury in Wednesday night’s home loss to LSU.
Steele, who wasn’t offered a scholarship by the Vols, started State’s previous six games and scored a career-high 17 points on five 3-pointers in the Bulldogs’ loss at Kentucky on Feb. 15. His first season is Starkville ended after 27 games and a 5.7-point scoring average.
“I’m so happy for Jalen,” Pearl said. “A lot of times, what will happen is people will look at that, even locally, and say, ‘Well, Tennessee didn’t think Jalen could play.’ That just wasn’t the case. I knew Jalen could play, but he went to a place where there they lost (Barry) Stewart, and he had a good opportunity to play. And look at how much he was playing in the SEC.
“We had signed Jordan McRae early, and we had Scotty Hopson, Cameron Tatum, Josh Bone, Skylar McBee ... all those guys were back at (Steele’s) position. It was a situation where to put everybody in a position to be successful, to put Jalen in position to be successful and to let our guys be successful, we just weren’t able to offer him a scholarship — but it’s not because he can’t play. He can really play.
“I’m very disappointed for him, that he’s not healthy coming into this game. He’s had a really, really nice year.”
Hopson said he was disappointed to hear that Steele went down against LSU.
“He’s a good friend of mine,” Hopson said. “I definitely talked to him a lot the years when he was here, when I was a freshman and sophomore (at UT). I got a chance to watch him play in high school, too, and he’s a good player. I saw him develop over some years, and he’s done some good things.
“I’m sure he’s mad he’s not going to be able to play against us, but he’ll get his opportunity.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247