The #9 Vols went to Los Angeles and turned in a horrific performance against the Trojans, in a stunning 77-55 loss. There is nothing good to say about what we saw out there today. There's plenty to say otherwise.
The Value of a Point Guard
Mike Gerrity got clearance from the NCAA to play late last week, a transfer from UNC-Charlotte to USC. He hadn't played collegiate basketball in twenty-one months. And in his first game back, he had 12 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds. Tennessee had no one who could guard him, no one who could prevent him from going coast-to-coast and either scoring or drawing a foul, and didn't learn to watch for the deep ball leaving his hands on the inbounds pass.
It's not just that Gerrity was the hardest working man on the floor; you expect that in part when someone hasn't played in so long and then returns. It's that you saw what a true point guard brings to an offense - something the Vols haven't had since CJ Watson. It wasn't just Gerrity's scoring, it was his poise and leadership. He directed the Trojan offense, distributed the ball well, and provided leadership to the entire team.
This is what Bruce Pearl needs, and has been unable to find. Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins have good qualities, but they're not pure point guards, and they don't bring stability and poise to the offense - they're not leaders. Which raises a much bigger question for the Vols:
Who is the leader of this team?
There is both a personality component and an on-the-floor component to this question, but it's very valid. When the Vols need a bucket, who do they go to? And when the team is in a funk and falling behind, who will pick this team up? Who will put them on their shoulders and turn the tide? Who will carry that responsibility?
Right now, the best-case answer is we don't know yet. And the worst-case answer is no one, because most of these guys faced this question last year.
Is it Tyler Smith? He was nonexistent in the first half and not much better in the second, finishing with 3 points on 1-6 shooting. Is it Wayne Chism? Chism has no problem taking shots, and I'm not even upset about his performance today (3 of 11, 1 of 7 from three)...but the fact that 7 of his 11 shots were threes tells a more troubling story: the Vols got no post game today, in part because USC clogged the lane the whole game, but in part because it's just not there. How often does this team run plays for Chism or Smith on the block? How often did we last year?
Who on this team plays with authority at the rim? Who is the physical presence that can prevent a rebounding performance like today, where the Trojans treated the Vols like children on the block and picked up an inexplicable 43-17 rebounding advantage? I understand lots of things and know we're not always going to play our best game, but I will never understand not boxing out and standing around waiting for the rebound to come to you. While the Vols were standing around, two Trojans recorded double-doubles: Alex Stepheson (19-16) and Nikola Vucevic (15-10).
Who will lead this team?
Playing with poise on offense
Pearl said it before the game: you'd better value possessions against USC, or you're going to lose. The Trojans stacked the lane and dared the Vols to take bad shots, and the Vols were more than happy to oblige:
- 20 of 58 from the floor, 34.5%
- 2 of 22 from the arc, 9.1%
- 13 of 25 from the line, 52%
Tennessee got impatient, tried to play one-on-one, and didn't take advantage of trips to the free throw line. The Vols settled for threes that weren't going down, and had no better option. At no point did we use the phrase "good ball movement" or even "great pass" watching the game today - the Vols played like five individuals instead of one team on offense. In the first half, the Vols went the final 4:30 without making a shot. In the second half, the Vols went another 7:00 without a made basket, and USC put the game away.
Meanwhile, USC was patient and incredibly efficient: the Trojans took only 42 shots, but made 23 of them (54.8%). 3 of 7 from the arc. A merciless 28 of 35 from the line (80.0%). Even though the Trojans turned the ball over 18 times - a number you would've felt good about as a Tennessee fan coming in - their efficiency more than made up for it. Despite playing a seven man rotation, the Trojans didn't tire, they just kept playing their pace, and it worked brilliantly - this is a team that averaged 59 points per game coming in, and thanks to Gerrity and poise, scored almost 80 today. USC beat the Vols in every phase - and that includes the fact that Bruce Pearl got outcoached by Kevin O'Neill.
Where do we go from here?
Well, we go to Wednesday, where the 8-2 Vols will host North Carolina A&T. Then we go to Memphis on New Year's Eve, where these questions will almost certainly present themselves again. And if the Vols don't get answers soon, they're going to keep coming up short.
Tennessee has a bunch of good, talented players. But playing like this, we are not a good team. Who will take charge and show some authority with this team? And who will become the guy or group of guys we can count on when we need points? Until we find the answers to those questions, Tennessee will not be as good as they want to be. If they thought they were already, they got a dose of reality today.