Part One of our weeklong series previewing the 2009-10 Tennessee Basketball season, which tips off on Friday, November 13.
It's Year Five of BruceBall, and Tennessee fans can rest easy on two truths: this guy is the real deal, and he doesn't appear to be going anywhere else.
In four years, Bruce Pearl has led the Vols to four NCAA Tournament appearances, two Sweet 16s (no Tennessee team has ever played in the Elite 8), three Eastern Division titles, one SEC Championship, and reached #1 in the polls in early 2008. He has positioned the Vols as a mainstay in the tournament and the Top 25, as UT opens in the top ten of this season's AP poll. And he gives his all for Tennessee: your attention span may currently be drawn to the antics of the new kid on the block in Knoxville, but Lane Kiffin has nothing on Pearl when it comes to self-and-team-promotion. Kiffin is on billboards and in lyrics, Pearl is painted up and doing the actual rapping. They are the most entertaining football-basketball coaching combination in America, and while Kiffin continues to build his process, Pearl's process has arrived.
And when big money came calling this offseason, Pearl shunned mighty Memphis to stay in Knoxville, staying loyal to the school that gave him his break, and now even more eager to capitalize on it more fully.
That opportunity could present itself this season, as a veteran Tennessee squad that lost only Ryan Childress (plus Josh Tabb and Emmanuel Negedu due to unforseen circumstances) from last year's division title team looks to take Tennessee - and Pearl - to the promised land.
As we begin our season preview, here's a look back at what essentially the same team did one year ago...
2008-09: Expectation Meets Reality
A team that won 31 games, the SEC Championship and was ranked #1 for one glorious week in the season before lost Ramar Smith, Duke Crews, Jordan Howell, JaJuan Smith, and Chris Lofton...and was ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll. This, my friends, was the magic of Bruce Pearl.
Pearl probably knew that his 08-09 team wasn't that good, but these are the expectations he had created for himself in three magical seasons. And so while the rest of Vol Nation was immersed in a terrible combination of misery, depression, and frantic rumor chasing with the departure of Phillip Fulmer and the arrival of Lane Kiffin, Pearl and the boys quietly won their first three games before heading off to the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
It was in Orlando that the burden of expectation wasn't dealt any favors: the Vols blasted what was considered to be a dangerous Siena team in the opening round, then won a game against a Georgetown team ranked #16 at the time, and considered to be one that presented all kinds of matchup problems. Few noticed around Knoxville, as it came on the eve of Fulmer's last game and amid news that Kiffin would be the new hire. When the Vols lost to #10 Gonzaga in the finals, we shrugged our shoulders and said we'd get them in Knoxville.
The Vols entered the top ten the following week, Tyler Smith picked up the first triple-double in UT basketball history against UNC-Asheville, and we all settled in for the basketball team to carry us through the winter.
Coming up short against an insane schedule
The Vols were 6-1 and ranked 8th in Philadelphia on December 13. The first warning signs came via Dionte Christmas, who dropped 35 points in a nationally televised game, and the Temple Owls stunned the Vols 88-72. Three days later, the Vols played #23 Marquette in Nashville and came off the deck swinging in an impressive 80-68 win. A two point win over Belmont and a loss at Kansas that included giving up 92 points raised questions again, especially about the Vols' ability to give opposing guards career nights.
The schedule would bring five marquee matchups to Thompson-Boling in the month of January, with the Vols playing a big game almost every night out throughout the month. And Tennessee's struggles continued: they were outlasted by Gonzaga in the rematch in overtime, the first home loss since Pearl's first year and only his third overall. That performance was quickly trumped by The Jodie Meeks Game, and suddenly the joke about giving up career nights was not funny, at all.
The Vols rebounded with a win over what would become a pretty good South Carolina team, then took the magic out of Memorial by ambushing the Commodores. But in the return bout from the #1 vs. #2 game, another disturbing trend continued to present itself: the Vols shot 3 of 16 from behind the arc, and allowed Memphis to escape Knoxville with a 54-52 win. Pearl had now lost more games at TBA in 17 days than he had in the three years prior.
It got worse: up and coming LSU busted the Vols 79-73 four nights later. And at this point, if you surveyed the landscape, you saw a team that had started 6-1 now standing at 12-7 (3-2 SEC), having split their last 12 including four losses in Knoxville. The Vols couldn't shoot the three, couldn't stop opposing guards, and when you looked back, the win over Georgetown was becoming more and more worthless each day, as the Hoyas were en route to missing the dance. A team that was ranked 8th just six weeks earlier was now squarely on the bubble, with the worst SEC in the modern era doing them no favors in terms of strength of schedule. We needed a big win.
Something to believe in
With ESPN GameDay in attendance and both teams not performing up to past expectation, the Vols stopped their TBA skid and ended an insane month with a dominant 79-63 win over Florida. Because Bruce Pearl owns the Gators. The Vols made the last shot at Arkansas and then didn't at Auburn, but when Tennessee followed up with a 31 point win over Georgia and a 19 point win over Vanderbilt, the Vols had won four of five and were sporting a much healthier resume at 16-8, 7-3 in the SEC. The Vols were still in the running for the SEC title and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, and fans were believing in this team again.
The season is over!
Then, without warning, it hit the fan.
The Vols were undressed by a wounded Ole Miss team in Oxford that Tennessee clearly overlooked, falling 81-65. And in what suddenly became a game of great importance for two teams trying to go dancing, the Vols were dusted by Kentucky at Rupp 77-58. After winning two home games by 50 combined points, the Vols ate two road losses by 35. Tennessee was 16-10, 7-5 in conference, and appeared to be behind the eight ball in both the division race and the NCAA Tournament chase.
In the aftermath, Bruce Pearl ripped everybody: the players, the fans, the media, and himself. He accused the Vols of quitting at Rupp and said that fans should be disappointed in this team (while struggling with the balance between unhealthy expectations and the reality of his team's play). At this point, Billy Gillispie was safe and Kentucky was thinking March, and the Vols were wondering if their bubble had burst.
But this is yet another reason why Bruce Pearl is the man. Because calling out his team for the first time publicly had exactly the desired result.
Wait, we're awesome!
It started with the arrival of Scotty Hopson in a hard fought 81-76 win over Mississippi State in Knoxville, which also included the most famous comment string in the history of RTT (just read from there down to the green one). The Vols were staring trips to Gainesville and Columbia in the face, with the East and the tournament on the line. Dan Werner made the mistake of bumping into Tyler Smith in pregame warmups, and the Gators made the mistake of forgetting who their daddy is: the Vols jumped Florida early and held on late for a 79-75 win. Because Bruce Pearl owns the Gators.
That set up a de facto SEC East Championship Game in Columbia, with Kentucky having fallen off the face of the earth - beating the Vols was Gillispie's final accomplishment in the Bluegrass, UK lost its final four games following the win over UT. And in Columbia, Tennessee flipped the switch to the fully on and upright position, routing a Carolina team that couldn't play to the moment, 86-70. Just two weeks after Pearl unleashed the fury, the Vols returned the favor, and secured the SEC Eastern Division Championship.
If not for Alabama hitting a miracle half-court shot in the season finale, the Vols would've rolled into the SEC Tournament on a four game winning streak. But as they faced the Tide in a quarterfinal rematch, they made it right with an 86-62 beating that featured 51 combined points from Tyler, Wayne and JP. The next day, the Vols qualified for the tournament finals for the first time in 18 years by earning more revenge, this time with a 94-85 win over Auburn that featured three CHI$$LE!'s in five minutes.
At this point, Tennessee was 21-11, winners of five of their last six, and thinking about not only winning the SEC Tournament for the first time in decades, but securing a seed somewhere in the 5-6 range for the NCAA Tournament.
Tough and Tougher Losses
In an absolutely insane finish that the referees got more involved in than they should have, Mississippi State survived the Vols and the orange blazer 64-61 to win the SEC Tournament and steal a bid to the big dance. The loss was painful, but on Selection Sunday the Vols looked for their reward just a few hours later. Most projections found the Vols as 6 or 7 seeds.
Instead, the bracket produced a stunner: the Vols fell to the 9 line, a clear statement on the importance of conference strength (which the SEC lacked, getting only two teams plus Mississippi State's auto-bid into the tourney) over RPI ranking. That not only meant the Vols would have to face a tougher opponent in round one, but they were dealt the death sentence of having to play a number one seed in round two.
But it never got that far: in an evenly played game throughout, Oklahoma State beat the Vols 77-75, as the worst three point shooting team in the field (that'd be us) jacked 33 of them from beyond the arc, hitting only 11 and missing the one at the buzzer that would've won it
The quick exit - Pearl's first one-and-done in Knoxville - left most of us disappointed and frustrated with the team that was once #8 but struggled to fully materialize until the final weeks of the season, and then couldn't win the two close ones at the end that mattered most. It left Pearl again struggling with the balance of expectation, disappointment and success, and found us coming to his defense, even in hopefully unnecessary fashion.
An In-State Crisis
Two weeks later, Elvis left the building for the bluegrass, and Tiger High rolled out its FedEx checkbook and made a move at our head coach. And Pearl - intentionally or unintentionally - let it play out just long enough to make us think, and then make us worry. The sheer possibility of the big guy leaving made us again question the sometimes-toxic role the Tennessee fanbase can play.
But then Bruce made Vol hearts go pitter-patter once again, not from anxiety but from adoration, turning down Memphis' deeper pockets to stay in Knoxville and continue to build a champion. It took two days and several million dollars, but suddenly we all appreciated Pearl again.
And then we turned our attention back to football, like we do. And in the seven months since, Pearl has flown largely below the radar, popping up here and there but deferring largely to Kiffin. But as Kiffin enters the backstretch of his first football season, and Vol fans gain greater appreciation for him every day, Pearl prepares to receive the baton again. The fact that we can talk this in-depth about basketball in the midst of football season shows that Pearl has already changed the culture. And thankfully, this year we won't look longingly towards bball season to save us from our misery, as Kiffin has already brightened the football outlook.
But when the basketball Vols start rolling at the end of next week, they'll do so as a veteran top ten team with a legitimate shot at championships and unprecedented territory. These are the wonderful expectations Pearl has built, and this time, he expects the Vols to deliver. Football will always be king here, but that journey is just beginning with Lane Kiffin. Bruce Pearl and the Vols have a chance to be great now, not later...and as every season tells a story, we carry our hopes as this one unfolds that it will have a better ending than ever before.