There is no longer any question about the Vols' ability to win without Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams, because winning is all we've done since the events of January 1. Tennessee now stands at 15-2, 3-0 in the SEC, and 8th in both polls. And our depleted rotation of six scholarship players and three walk-ons is 5-0 against Charlotte, Kansas, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Alabama.
How far this team can ultimately go is a question for March - here in January, we're still enjoying one game at a time. The early SEC returns show an upper tier of Kentucky, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt (all 3-0), and while Kentucky's position at #1 certainly makes finishing ahead of them an imposing idea, right now we'll take every win we can get, and then see where we are on February 13 in Lexington.
On his postgame show Tuesday night, Bruce Pearl said he was excited about this team making progress. This is now a group of nine that knows it can win instead of merely survive, and the idea that they can still improve on what we've already seen is an exciting one. But if it's a group that, as several have mentioned, reminds us of Bruce Pearl's first team, we should note both the positives and negatives of that comparison. The '06 team was scrappy and found ways to win against all odds, and that part we'll happily take.
But it was also a group that hit the wall in mid-February. Maybe they simply reached their potential - and though that team had Chris Lofton, their overall talent doesn't match up with what the current Vols are putting on the floor each night, even in a depleted state.
But perhaps fatigue was a factor as well. Pearl's first team started 19-3, 10-1 in the SEC. A loss at Alabama ended an eight game winning streak, but the Vols recovered to win at Florida ("Bradshaw stole the ball!") and lock up the SEC East. That game was the definitive peak for Pearl's first team - the 19-3 start was followed by a 3-5 finish, which included two home losses (one to Kentucky), another one-and-done appearance in the SEC Tournament, and a second round upset loss to 7 seed Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament.
If fatigue was a factor - and that team played only an eight man rotation - how can Pearl and the current Vols learn from those mistakes, and prevent this season from being only a good story in January? On Wednesday, Pearl said he saw no reason to change the rotation right now - but do we really expect to play the rest of the season without Tatum and Goins? When an obvious solution to fatigue is now back on the bench, how can the Vols work them back in to the rotation and overcome fatigue without sacrificing chemistry?
Take a look at the difference in minutes played among active players, before and after January 1:
The good news is that despite the depleted roster, no player is getting 30 minutes or more on average. The numbers are also spiked slightly due to the overtime game against Ole Miss, where three Vols logged 36+ minutes, led by Chism with 41. On the other hand, foul trouble has kept minutes down for both Prince and Chism during this run, while Bobby Maze played only 19 minutes against Ole Miss, deferring to Josh Bone.
Bone is getting almost exactly the same amount of playing time that Melvin Goins saw earlier this season, between 16-17 minutes on average as the backup point guard. Bone's contributions defensively in the Ole Miss win give him an extra push over Goins as well. Unless something changes or Pearl wants to try him at SG, Melvin Goins may not see any significant minutes for the Vols the rest of the season.
Pearl mentioned that he thought about playing Cameron Tatum against Alabama because of foul trouble, but elected not to. And right now, that may continue to be Tatum's only role. However, Tatum is also capable of being an additional perimeter threat, shooting 40% from beyond the arc this season. Aside from giving guys a breather, Tatum brings an additional offensive dimension to the table - will Pearl implement Tatum back in the rotation at some point, or keep him only for spot duty?
If Tatum returns, he could give Scotty Hopson and J.P. Prince - the two guys playing the most minutes in the last five games - a breather without sacrificing a ton in the quality department. Tatum was averaging 8.7 points per game before his suspension, more than J.P. Prince was getting at the time. With Tatum in the game, the Vols could put four guys on the floor that shoot at least 39% from beyond the arc (with Hopson, Woolridge and CHI$$LE!). And it feels otherwise, but the Vols are taking almost as many threes now (18.4 per game) than they did before the suspensions (18.8 per game).
When you look at the rest of the numbers in comparing Tennessee before and after the suspensions, there's really not a huge difference anywhere. Shooting numbers are within a two percentage point difference between the first twelve games and the last five, rebounds are slightly down without Tyler Smith and Brian Williams, and while the biggest statistical difference comes on the defensive end (opponent field goal percentage is down from 38.8% before to 35.3% against better competition after), I think we'd all say that this too is more a matter of focus than talent - the Vols didn't get better defensively when four players were removed, but they did become more focused and each individual was given an increased role, and now the team is playing better overall defense.
It's that focus and general ubuntu-like nature of the post-arrest Vols that has allowed us to win. This must be maintained above all else...so how do Tatum and Goins play into team chemistry?
For now, Pearl is probably dead on to keep Tatum and Goins on the bench unless foul trouble presents itself. Can this nine man rotation go the distance and keep winning? We'll keep taking them one at a time...but along the way, it'll be very interesting to see if/when Pearl elects to make a move.