We have been waiting for the last seven days to arrive for a long, long time. The funny thing is, we didn't know they were here until they already happened.
When you follow sports - no matter which sport or which team - you're bound to ride some ups and downs. Sometimes the ups last much longer (as with the Lady Vols), and sometimes the downs never seem to end (as with last season's football offense). But the roller coaster is always running, and we're simply along for the ride.
El Toro (via tenioman)
But sometimes you get a chance to peek back at the track behind you and ask yourself, "What did I just go through?" And sometimes, whatever it was, it was great.
UT MEN'S BASKETBALL
The men's team got the earliest jump on the wave, starting with an 81-76 win over Mississippi State. Heading into the game, the situation was:
Tennessee was 16-10, 7-5 in conference, and 4th in the East division. For a team that was projected to win the SEC outright, that was a very humbling position. Kentucky was both ahead of UT and in control of the tiebreaker with a 54-point game by Meeks on UT's own home court and a home stand to sweep the regular season.
- The remaining games against Florida and South Carolina were all away games. Both opponents had reason to believe that they would win the rematch - especially South Carolina, who found their focus in Devan Downey (yet another point guard UT wasn't expected to be able to contain.)
The team wasn't listening to Bruce Pearl. In a moment that reminds us that our athletes are still young men, we find out that the Kentucky game was played as a bunch of individuals, with Tabb completely ignoring the opening play and Chism not listening in the timeout huddle. It was so bad, that Bruce Pearl finally went public with the types of things that are normally reserved for the locker room.
In short, the situation was a mess. We were considering the very real possibility of missing the NCAA tournament and comparing our resume to those of Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
UT LADY VOLS' BASKETBALL
The Lady Vols were experience the same story as the men. On February 19th, they lost to Kentucky in Rupp as well, severely damaging their chances at a bye in the SEC tournament and opening the door for consideration of a sub-8 seed in the NCAA tournament. A few observations about the Ladies:
- The loss to Kentucky left us wondering if they would ever find a point guard. The interior game showed promise, but there was absolutely no coordination on the team, as unforced errors were grinding the offense to a complete halt.
- Injuries on the team had left little options. With Vicki Baugh and Cait McMahan out for the year (and in Cait's case, for good), much of the meager veteranship on the team was off the floor. The types of players who would normally rally the team and lead the comeback were gone. Alex Fuller was the lone voice of leadership left on a team that needed an entire hierarchy of leaders.
- A team that once beat Stanford and Rutgers seemed only capable of beating themselves. First halves were abominable. Against Duke the Lady Vols took over 5 minutes to score their first point. Halftime deficits were the norm. Only in the final few minutes of the game, when they played at full speed, did they even look like a competitive team.
Though football may be in the offseason, there is no offseason for the football fans. Still hanging on to every piece of recruiting news of the '09 class, UT led the NCAA with post-NSD recruiting drama. We were uniquely set with three top-ranked recruits as potential signees. But,
- Bryce Brown appeared to be getting Butler'd. The Rivals #1 overall prospect was getting progressively more enigmatic, and doubts about his handler were leading people to speculate that the NCAA might not even let him play. (It didn't help that the NCAA was just starting to investigate Butler.)
- David Oku appeared to be orbiting Pluto. Once one of the stable commits during the Fulmer administration, Oku became flakier and flakier about recruiting. UT was his leader. Then Auburn was. Then nobody was. Then he moved to Nebraska. Oh yeah, and Brian Butler was Oku's handler as well.
- Orson Charles appeared to be headed to Georgia. And he may still be, but the tea leaves were reading strongly in that direction at the time. All of the recruiting site news was coming through the Georgia affiliates. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was getting more press time with him than any other outlet. While even today (when Charles is going to announce) nobody knows his intentions, it became easier to find reasons to believe that UT was not it.
THEN "IT" HAPPENED
The men's basketball team has won three in a row - including the away games against Florida and South Carolina. Kentucky, meanwhile, has fallen apart, which now leaves UT as the E1 seed in the SEC tournament. The team has begun to play like a team, and the high-energy fun boys of Bruce are emerging from their cocoon.
The Lady Vols, while dropping a close contest to LSU in Baton Rouge, are showing signs of team growth as well. Players have begun to realize that they were not fitting Pat Summitt's creed of selflessness, and Shekinna Stricklen apologized for not accepting her role. (Aside: Stricklen was asked to play point to provide leadership on offense, though her natural position is more of a forward. It took her a while to accept the change, but she was probably the MVP against Alabama.) But the team played a terrific game against Vanderbilt and, despite a slow start, has won their first tournament game.
The football team has their share of good news as well. Following Junior Day, the news on the recruiting front caan only be interpreted as good. One of our key recruits for '10 - Jacques Smith - is heavily recruiting other key players on behalf of UT. The staff took Holly's signature advice and went shirtless for the juniors - a move that made Alabama look "boring" in comparison. And on the heels of last night's EPIC WINs for both baskteball squads, the football team finally received the signature from David Oku. The addition of Oku alone secures a top-15 recruiting class for UT in both the Scout and Rivals rankings - a great resume line for a staff with only 4 months of total time on the job (and significantly less time for most of the staff).
What's the next turn?
The roller coaster is still rolling forward. Orson Charles will announce today. Bryce Brown is still in play, even after Oku's commitment (and maybe more so because of Oku). There's plenty of track ahead of us in a ride that feels much like Space Mountain with the lights off. But for now, we get a chance to peek back and see just how crazy good the last few turns have been.
Sometimes, it really is great to be a Tennessee Vol!