Peterson system in place at Tennessee

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   After one of the toughest years imaginable for a first-year head basketball coach, Buzz Peterson looks to his second season at the University of Tennessee with his "system" now installed as he told us Monday night at the UT All-Sports Picnic held in Johnson City.
   Starting with dismissing two star players from the team, Peterson, the 16th head basketball coach in UT history, knew his first season in Knoxville was going to be a challenge.
   "It's one of those things that is important," said Peterson about putting his system into place. "These guys were under a set standard of rules with coach (Jerry) Green.
   "Whatever he had was successful, because they had won a lot of games. I knew coming into the situation there had to be something wrong. Whatever it was, I wanted the discipline to go the way I wanted it to. I know it's not like turning on a light switch and it's going to happen.
   "The rules broken were just too severe and I had to make a decision on that. Hopefully, that will turn around with recruiting. I always recruit as a human being first, a student second and an athlete third."
   Things really started to fall apart when the Vols lost their toughest inside player, forward Ron Slay, with a season-ending knee injury.
   "Everything is going well with Slay now," said Peterson. "He's rehabbed and knee is doing fine. We're going to get him back in the lineup. More than anything, Ron gives us the emotional leadership that we need.
   "Ron gives us a lift as a leader. He likes to do a lot by verbal, but also by his actions. Him being a senior and one of the top players we have, it's tremendous to have your leader as the hardest worker and Ron brings that."
   Matters weren't helped that the Vols endured close loss after close loss. During a stretch from December 20 to January 16, Tennessee lost 6 of 7 games with the widest margin of defeat four points. The string hampered the Vols' overall record, which ended at 15-16 with a Southeastern Conference mark of 7-9.
   "It was quite a whirlwind for awhile," Peterson admitted. "Losing so many games close, we lost seven last possession games in a row before we got it turned around. But, you know what, our players never kept their heads down. It built good character.
   "We lost those seven and then after we won a couple, we gained some confidence. We never did point fingers at anybody, we stayed together as a team and stayed as a family."
   However, Peterson had been a success wherever he has been including East Tennessee State. As an assistant in Johnson City, Peterson helped guide the Bucs to a 27-7 record and the Southern Conference championship in 1990. Later, he would win a pair of SoCon crowns as the head coach at Appalachian State.
   He served as the head coach at Tulsa for one season, winning the NIT Championship in 1999, before taking the job at Tennessee. It has been well-documented of Peterson's ties to UT, where his father Bob is a 1959 graduate.
   Coming into his second year, the team knew they would have to replace leading scorer Vincent Yarborough. Still, a solid foundation was in place. That was until the surprise announcement last month that post player Marcus Halslip and his 16.7 points per game would forego a senior year to enter the NBA draft.
   "You've got this plan on how everything is going to work out and it changes at the last minute," said Peterson, himself selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1985 NBA draft. "Signing with an agent surprised me. He told me, 'Coach, if I can be number 20 in the draft I want to go.' When you're 6-9 and can bench press 405 pounds and have a vertical leap of 38 inches, you can right your ticket.
   "The money is the first three years is guaranteed. A lot of people like him. The only thing I told him was, 'Please come back to school.''
   Strong recruiting gives Peterson optimism that the 2002-03 season could surpass his first year at the helm. "We signed five early back in November," stated Peterson, 38. "We needed some perimeter players. We got a point guard C. J. Watson out of Las Vegas. Then, we signed John Winchester, a 6-3 wing out of New Jersey. Both of those kids were Parade All-Americans.
   "Justin Albriecht, a transfer from Iowa Western does a lot of little things well. He drew 42 charges the year before last. We signed Boomer Herndon, a 6-11 kid from Donelson Christian Nashville. We filled our needs. We just didn't realize that Halslip was going pro after he played 13 minutes a game the year before. We'll be a young ball club, but we'll be fine."
   Peterson, himself, is a former Parade All-American. He was the North Carolina high school player of the year at Asheville High. The player, he beat out to win the award was Michael Jordan, his future roommate at the University of North Carolina. Jordan and Peterson shared the 1982 National Championship, playing for the Tar Heels' legendary coach Dean Smith.
   He says now is when teams put themselves in position to play for such high honors. "This is a league that is competitive every night," said Peterson. "I don't care what sport, basketball, football, baseball or track, you have to have speed to compete in the SEC. Here are the best athletes in the country.
   "Most of our kids are going to be sticking around this summer and bulking up. You win your games in the weight room and in the conditioning, getting quicker and getting stronger. From now on to August, it's up to the players. I told our seniors, 'This is your team, you have to make sure you get people in the gym and they work hard at it.'"