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Tennessee Basketball has long since moved on from Vols coach Bruce Pearl

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There were no divorce papers filed, but the love affair Tennessee Basketball fans once had for Bruce Pearl is officially over.

Pearl’s return to Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday night won’t be about him when he leads his No. 11 Auburn Tigers against the No. 4 Vols for the 15th time. In fact, Pearl won’t even be among the top stories.

There are more important things at stake thanks to the job that Tennessee Basketball coach Rick Barnes has done at UT since being hired in 2015.

Let’s start with both teams trying to improve their seeding in the upcoming NCAA Basketball Tournament. That’s a bigger story than Pearl’s return to Knoxville, and it’s not even close. The Vols are trying to lock up a No. 1 seed, and the Tigers would certainly like to improve where they currently stand, which is projected as a No. 4 seed by most. Then, there’s the days ahead.

The Vols have an incredibly difficult run after playing Auburn. They will travel to Alabama to play the 14th-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday, play at the No. 18 South Carolina Gamecocks next week and then close the regular season with the No. 16 Kentucky Wildcats at home.

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If the Vols want to assure themselves of a No. 1 seed, they had better not lose more than one of those games before the SEC Tournament. The Auburn-Tennessee matchup is a huge basketball game for both teams, not just a Pearl revenge opportunity. And for the Vols, living well has been the best revenge.

Under Rick Barnes, Tennessee Basketball as a program is as good as it ever was under Pearl. However, it is different. The Vols are more stable now considering what we now know about Pearl’s dealings with the NCAA that got him fired. Although the program may not be as exciting under Barnes as it was under Pearl, Barnes at least has not been caught lying to his superiors.

For the record, Pearl has a 64-percent winning percentage at Auburn. Barnes has a 62-percent winning percentage at Tennessee. Pearl was clipping along at 70-percent at Tennessee before the famous barbecue bust that caused his ouster.

It wasn’t that long ago that UT fans assembled a group letter asking for former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin to be fired and replaced by Pearl, who would have surely been a part of that ploy.

Simply put, Barnes’ competence as a high-level coach makes Pearl look like a distant figure in the rearview mirror. He may get even more distant if he accepts another job after this season, which has been widely speculated. That would have always been a concern at Tennessee.

With Barnes and Pearl on the sideline facing off against each other at their current schools, the Vols are 5-8. They are 6-8 against Pearl since he accepted the head coaching job at Auburn.

Considering the mess Pearl left UT in, evening up this series would be something to take pride in. Don’t forget they had to rebuild their program because of Pearl and his NCAA issues that were rather untimely. 

I understand it’s hard not to imagine what could have been had the Tennessee-Pearl marriage worked out. After all, Pearl made the Final Four with Auburn. It’s reasonable to think he could have done the same for Tennessee Basketball. However, that’s not the news on Wednesday, not even close. It’s not time for reminiscing for either team. It’s time to focus on a big game with March on everyone’s mind, not Pearl.

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