A Breath of Fresh Air in Knoxville

There have been bigger wins for Bruce Pearl against Florida.  Wins that have ended undefeated seasons, wrapped up division and conference championships, and beaten eventual National Champions. 

But perhaps none of Pearl's staggering six wins in seven tries against the Gators meant more to the balance of one season in that one moment than what the Vols did in Thompson-Boling Arena last night, in securing a 79-63 win.

It had been eleven months since something definitively good happened in Knoxville.  With a football season devoid of any meaningful wins and a basketball season where the Vols' two marquee wins have come in Orlando and Nashville, the faces leaving Thompson-Boling over the last month have had a similar look.  Frustration, anxiety, and a tangible sense that we're close...but are we getting any closer?

After Gonzaga, we really didn't know how to walk out of the arena as losers, and we credited it to their experience.  After Kentucky, it was all about Jodie Meeks.  After Memphis, we knew we were so close...

But when LSU handed us another L on the home floor, you had to wonder if we were ever going to break out of this funk.

As Coach Pearl had said before, the wins over Georgetown and Marquette could be attributed, in part, to the fact that people were expectating perhaps a different Tennessee team to line up against them, one that shot threes and pressed, and the Vols disguised their weaknesses with the element of surprise.  But once the book got out on us, our weaknesses became readily evident to players, coaches, fans and media...and we just didn't have anything tangible to prove that it was ever going to get better.  How does a team shooting around 30% from three magically just get better?  How many games do you have to play before your young kids can't be considered inexperienced anymore?

And these were all questions you would've heard again, only louder, had the Vols done what most expected and lost to Florida, in what would've been their fifth TBA loss in the month of January.

But instead... 

In the postgame, Bruce Pearl said this:  "Can we not shoot the three ball, or do we have pretty good shooters that aren't shooting very well?"

One game won't give you the definitive answer...but on this night, you at least got a glimpse of what's possible.

Tyler Smith finally knocks down the threes on a consistent basis that we've all been wondering why he was taking.  Cameron Tatum provides a quick burst off the bench.  Josh Tabb and Bobby Maze hit the threes the situation demanded they hit. 

And if tales are told one day of Scotty Hopson, they will most certainly include this night.

I have never seen a player look so excited to be playing well.  Even the "CJ Watson/Joakim Noah Honorary Elbow in the Tennessee/Florida Game" and another airballed free throw didn't take it away from him.  The only person happier than everyone wearing orange...er, white...for Scotty to finally hit those shots was Scotty himself.  If Hopson is to realize his potential, it could very well have started on this night.

The game was never close, and while the Vols still made a handful of small mistakes and still have some growing up to do...this was the reminder that this team can still do some very good things.

Had the Vols lost to Florida, by 1 or 100, they'd have been two back of the Gators in the loss column in the East division, .500 in SEC play and definitively on the bubble.  And with no other chances to secure a marquee win at home left on the schedule, February and March would've played out as "Can we make the tournament?" with only the truly blind and optimistic thinking about scoring the necessary upsets in Lexington and Gainesville to get back in the conference race.  It would've made us accept a fate as a second-rate SEC team in 2009.

Instead, a win - and a 16 point win at that - creates a four team logjam in the SEC East, with Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina (in a win that looks better every night for the Vols) and Tennessee each with two losses.  It means that whether you think this team can still win the SEC or not, six games into conference play their record means you have to include them at the front of the conversation still.

The schedule was always going to get easier.  I've been saying for two weeks that I thought we'd all feel better about things in about thirty days...but now, instead of using the next five games as the cushion we need to make the tournament, the Vols can think about using it to stay atop the pace for the conference/division crown.  After the most difficult month in Tennessee basketball history, the Vols' next five games are at Arkansas, at Auburn, vs Georgia, vs Vanderbilt, at Ole Miss.  Combined SEC win/loss of those five teams:  6-21. 

Nothing is guaranteed with this team, but these are all games that the Vols should win.  Every single one of them.  And that performance against Florida may be just the confidence boost this team needs to go on a run like that, so that when the schedule cranks up again for the last five games (at Kentucky, vs Mississippi State, at Florida, at South Carolina, vs Alabama), the Vols will still be in the thick - or at the front - of the SEC title race. 

Everything felt better last night.  It bled through to the football recruits and the coaching staff, where Lane Kiffin continues to be shown an uncanny amount of love from a fan base for which he's won zero games.  But that's another day.

It showed when Eric Berry - who's getting more love from the same fans than any current player has been shown since Peyton Manning - walked out to his own highlight reel, including takedowns of Knowshon Moreno and Tim Tebow, and was himself a little giddy over the reaction he earned. 

We needed something to cheer about.  Something more than assistant coaching hires and names on a recruiting board.  And even something more than an Eric Berry sighting.

We needed a big win.  And last night, this team finally got one at home.

So we inhale all the good that we saw last night...and now, we see how far this team can take it forward.

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