Spout off all you want about the Vols being No. 1 in the country for barely a day. Lament the fact that Vanderbilt made clutch shot after clutch shot, calmly sank free throws and meticulously got the ball inbounds every single time down the stretch. Get angry that UT failed to value four or five crucial possessions late, let 20 valuable seconds run off the clock before fouling Shan Foster and missed some big free throws.
Just don't blame the Vols for this loss. Blame the schedule makers.
Many will come away from this game disappointed in the loss tonight. The players wearing orange will be among those, as will Bruce Pearl. When you're the No. 1 team in the country and sporting a 25-2 record, you don't expect to lose. Ever. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our Vols. This is the new-look program. Drink it in, it'll always go down smooth. I'm not among those angry. And in case you guys don't read me too often over at 3rdsaturdayinblogtober.wordpress.com, I'm not exactly Mr. Sunshine when it comes to my beloved alma mater.
Sure, I'm disappointed that Vanderbilt won the game 72-69. But, come on. This Vanderbilt team has arguably the league's Player of the Year, a guy who carried his team in the NCAA tournament in years past, a guy named Shan Foster who poured in 32 points, just like he's capable of doing. It took every single one of Foster's points to give Vanderbilt the win. This Vanderbilt team was mistake-free in the closing minutes, building a 14-point first-half lead and an eight-point advantage with less than 2 minutes to play. It won by three, remember. This Vanderbilt team has a big man inside who simply can't match up with the Vols (Ogilvy) and needed somebody, anybody to pick up the slack. Jermaine Beal poured in 17 points and sank a pair of clutch shots in the second half. This Vanderbilt team rode the momentum of a raucous home crowd that pulled out all the stops with a national-television white-out and a quirky Memorial Gymnasium, which has been the site of four consecutive upsets of No. 1 and a 41-point undressing of once-proud Kentucky this year.
This Vanderbilt team feasted off Georgia at home Saturday while the Vols played easily the most emotional, important game in the program's 99-year history, beating No. 1 and undefeated Memphis in the FedEx Forum. How can you cope with doing that and turning around and playing at the No. 14 team in the country, your most hated rival, two nights later? Who made this schedule? It's like somebody giving you a free gift certificate to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, you go gorge out and eat everything you couldn't possibly afford otherwise. Then, as you're walking out the door, somebody gives you one to Regas and expects you to do the same. You've already eaten your fill and had the time of your life, and now you've got to do it again. How can you pass it up, but how can you actually clean your plate.
Because we have Bruce Pearl, it takes the perfect storm to beat us. It takes a team playing as well as it possibly can and then having either an act of God or a god-like performance by a player to beat us. Vanderbilt got the second of the two tonight with Foster. Tennessee was in danger of getting blown out of the gym in the first half, but instead, the Vols hung close and actually took control of the game for a bit after crawling all the way back early in the second half.
Tyler Smith had the flu. Wayne Chism was in foul trouble. Jordan Howell is in the slump to end all slumps. And we still almost walked out of the toughest home-court advantage in the SEC with a win over a team that couldn't have played much better with their all-star player playing at his best. I'm supposed to be angry at this?
Look, in the conference, you're going to have some difficult games, and you're going to have some road losses. Vanderbilt is 24-4, y'all. If this team isn't a top-three seed in March Madness, I don't know what it takes to be one. This goes down as a "quality loss" in my book, even if it's going to irritate a lot of Vols and Vols fans. It should, and because it does -- and Pearl will let it fester in his team -- I feel pretty darn confident we're going to be better than OK as the season plays out.
I will leave with the only negative about tonight other than the blemish in the loss column. Tennessee absolutely MUST get better point guard play.
We all know that Ramar Smith's helter-skelter play can produce Jeckyl-and-Hyde results. For every great dish he makes or foul he creates, he throws up a brick or misses a free throw. He simply has to calm things down because we absolutely have to have his defensive presence on the court and his ability to penetrate and pass. When he turns on the what-the-heck-is-he-doing switch, we've always been able to take him out and insert the White Flava, Jordan Howell. But lately, it seems as if Jordan's game has contracted an STD. Howell is two for his past 22 from the field. Every shot he throws up is a line-drive missile that looks like Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character from "Along Came Polly." As much as UT's offense revolves around -- heck, depends on -- guard play, we have GOT to get those two guys back on track.
When you can't count on Smith, Howell or J.P. Prince to make plays offensively -- just one of them -- the Vols are in trouble. That's what happened Tuesday night. None of those three produced anything, and we still almost won.
This team isn't without flaw, for certain. But it also isn't without guts. There's no more target on the Vols' back, and does anybody really feel less confident about our chances to win it all this year? I know I don't.