It's been a bit of a frustrating journey for the Tennessee men's basketball team so far this season. Too often it's seemed like the team responds something like a balloon to Bruce Pearl's manipulations. Squeeze out a problem in one spot and another bubbles up somewhere else.
Take Scotty Hopson and last night's 82-79 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks, for example. Hopson was welcomed to Rocky Top with great fanfare as Pearl's first McDonald's All-American. The chief storyline about Hopson concerned the question of whether he'd stick around or bolt for the NBA after one season. But that wasn't exactly how it was turning out. Hopson had been struggling. Missing shots. Generally just taking up space. Coach Pearl's constant, high-decibel pleas for Hopson to be more aggressive had been falling on deaf ears. It's not that Hopson was bad; he was fine for a freshman. But he was most certainly not the one-and-done All-American we had expected to enjoy for at least a season.
Then, earlier this week, fellow Kentuckian Jodie Meeks got Hopson's (and everybody else's) attention by putting up a school record 54 on the Vols in their own arena. Shortly thereafter, Tyler Smith got his attention in a players-only meeting and added his voice to Pearl's rising cacophony: be aggressive.
Finally, last night, that message appeared to sink in. Against the Gamecocks, Hopson had 19 points and looked like the player we thought we had recruited. He aggressively drove the ball to the basket, challenged defenders, and put the ball in the cylinder regardless of what the defense was trying to do to him. You could practically see him testing the advice he had been hesitant to take for so long and reaping the rewards in the form of growing confidence.
So consider the Hopson-Needs-to-be-More-Aggressive problem fixed for a night. Consider that part of the balloon shaped to just the right size. But whether it will remain fixed or pop back up when Pearl squeezes something else remains to be seen. And it's not like Pearl doesn't have things to squeeze.
Wayne Chism's tendency to get into foul trouble reared its head once again. Chism had been not so quietly putting together a string of really nice games in which he was able to play aggressive while staying out of foul trouble. Not so last night, however. Chism fouled out in a grand total of 11 minutes and committed four turnovers. His only shot attempt was an air ball from behind the arc. Not a good night for Wheezy. Luckily, Brian Williams took up that slack.
The team still has to learn how to focus for 40 minutes as well. They had the game in hand in the first half. They were still up by double digits late, but as the clock wound down, so did their focus, and South Carolina went on a streak of creating turnovers and scoring points making the game much closer than it should have been. Thank goodness for Tyler Smith, who is really the only pillar of consistency on this team, as Smith almost single handedly rescued the Vols late from what would have been a really disappointing loss.
Tennessee did much better last night with regard to its perimeter defense, but that success is relative. Devan Downey did not have a career night like so many opposing guards have against the Vols, but he did get his average. You'd think that after that whole Meeks thing preventing that from happening yet again would be priority number one, so holding Downey to his average might be more properly considered mere improvement rather than success. But we'll take that, won't we?
There are so many moving parts that are new to the coach, the system, and each other that managing all of the variables at once must be extraordinarily difficult. Fix one problem, another appears. Squeeze the balloon here, it expands there. No Vol fan can say with any confidence that he knows what this Tennessee team will look like come March, but it is taking shape.