by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason for Tennessee’s unexpected two-game slide, especially after they earned arguably the most impressive non-conference win to date against Pittsburgh earlier this month.
The Vols’ loss at home to Oakland was a surprise, but hardly a shock. The Grizzlies pushed both Illinois and Michigan State and have a legitimate NBA big man in Keith Benson, so it seemed inevitable that a team this talented was going to steal a major conference win. Plus, if you combine Oakland’s confidence with Tennessee’s cockiness following the win in Pittsburgh, this loss actually makes some sense. Their most recent defeat at UNC-Charlotte, a 49-48 decision on Friday night, definitely classifies as shock-worthy though.
So here goes my attempt to explain the seemingly unexplainable dive Bruce Pearl’s team has taken since scooting up to No. 7 in the nation.
Pearl and his teams seem to thrive on adversity. This is true of most teams (or countries for that matter…according to my 10th grade world history teacher, every war in modern history was ignited by a leader who sought a cause to unite and rally his citizens), but the Tennessee basketball program stands out because they have faced more recent struggles, even if they are self-inflicted, than nearly every other school in the country.
Last year, in the first game following leading scorer Tyler Smith’s ill-fated New Year’s Eve joy ride that resulted in his indefinite suspension and the shorter-term suspension of three of his teammates, the spirited and severely undermanned Vols upset No. 1 Kansas at home. Bruce Pearl used the “us against the world” rallying cry the rest of the season (even though every player except Smith eventually returned from suspension) to lead his team to the Elite Eight as a six seed.
The shiftiness and deceitfulness with which Pearl runs his program doesn’t need to be rehashed, but the controversy surrounding Tennessee basketball early this season and Pearl’s eight-game suspension from SEC-conference play seems to, whether consciously or not, motivated the roller coaster-like minds of the Volunteers.
Tennessee was considered a top-25 team coming into the season but still behind conference favorites Florida and Kentucky in most SEC pre-season polls. Impressive “neutral” court wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh in the first seven games and some questionable performances by their conference rivals turned the Vols into an SEC favorite.
Whether it’s fair or not of me to judge the mindset of 18-22-year-olds, I’m not that far removed of that age-range, so I think I can speak for the fact that some college players/teams have trouble handling success. Isn’t it pretty obvious this is Tennessee’s issue? With something to prove, with their backs against the wall, insert your cliché here, the Vols are a Final Four contender.
For anyone who watched the Pitt game, they played with a fierceness and tenacity that made their strength, length and athleticism more imposing. At their peak, Tennessee was intimidating Pittsburgh, a program that has made a living over the years out of bullying other teams.
A little taste of success, however, and Tennessee reverts back to poor offensive execution, abysmal shooting, and questionable decision-making on the road. The Oakland game was an easy-to-predict letdown game (in hindsight obviously), but according to Pearl, Tennessee was up for the Charlotte game.
“I thought we didn’t play well, but it wasn’t about the fact that we weren’t excited about playing, ready to play,” Pearl remarked after falling to the 49ers. “We knew we were in a tough environment, that’s why you take these games on.”
Even if Tennessee did embrace the challenge of facing Charlotte on the road (in what was their first “true” road game of the season if you don’t count the technically neutral court win over Pittsburgh) as Pearl alludes to, that doesn’t guarantee victory. You can be “excited” for games and still be too relaxed. Relaxing for any road game — even if it is against a struggling team without its leading scorer — results in an upset.
If the first couple of months have taught us anything, it’s that Tennessee clearly has the talent to make a Final Four run but is missing a champion’s mindset. In other words, if the Selection Committee ends up giving UT a 1-4 seed in March, it may be doing the rest of the teams in the Vols’ region a favor. Just don’t turn Bruce Pearl into an underdog.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.