It's time to stop using the phrase "up and coming" to describe the Vols.
Not this team, which beat #3 Pitt at Pitt fifteen days after beating #7 Villanova in New York. The Vols got Nova by ten, then stepped on Pitt's throat immediately and never let them breathe. Don't look at the seven point margin of victory. Look at the fact that the Vols led by more than that from the 13:27 mark of the first half until Pitt made the final bucket with sixteen seconds left in the game. It reached 21 at one point in a second half run punctuated by a thunderous dunk from John Fields. The Vols came into Pittsburgh and dominated.
We beat Pitt at their game. Best rebounding team in the nation? Vols win the boards 32-28, even with three of our post players fouling out. Ashton Gibbs was the best player on the floor? He went 4 for 13. And any notion that Pitt's defense would cause problems for the Vols was shredded with 56.3% shooting.
We also beat Pitt with our game. The Panthers cracked 40% from the floor, just barely, but Tennessee's halfcourt defense was sensational once again. Tennessee's ball movement was also sensational once again, something that starts with Melvin Goins (and Trae Golden, who had 4 assists in 12 minutes), but bleeds through to the entire team. It's not just guys like Steven Pearl, who continues to come off the bench and bring good passing in his set of intangibles. Brian Williams has become a much better passer. Tennessee has stopped shooting itself in the foot on 2/3-on-1s, which was one of the few truly frustrating things about last year's team. And the okie-doke between Cameron Tatum and Scotty Hopson on what finally turned into a Tatum three in the second half was priceless.
Tennessee is not an up-and-coming team this year. And we're no longer an up-and-coming program either. This was Tennessee's fourth win over a Top 5 team in the calendar year, Pearl's ninth regular season win against a ranked non-conference opponent, and gives Tennessee an amazing seven wins against Top 5 opponents during his six year tenure. It's Tennessee - not Kentucky, not two-time champion Florida - who leads the SEC in wins in the last six years. During that time the Vols have made the Sweet 16 three times and the Elite Eight once.
You know all of that already. So should the rest of the nation. But instead, the main story with the Vols is Bruce Pearl's off-the-court issues with the NCAA.
It's Pearl's fault - he did it to himself. Mike Griffith made this point two weeks ago, and he's exactly right: the more Tennessee wins, the louder Pearl's critics will become.
Good things these Vols already know how to handle adversity. If everyone else is going to be more and more against us with each win, we'd better get ready to put on the black hat...and wear it well.
As we've seen, Tennessee looks adversity in the eye and responds with its best basketball. Happened last year after the January 1 arrests, and the performances against Villanova and Pittsburgh were two of the most complete games a Bruce Pearl team has ever played.
When we say the Vols are becoming the villain, it's not because our players are all thugs. Player discipline at Tennessee has always been strong under Pearl - even the guys who were just in the car last year got multi-game suspensions. And Tennessee isn't wearing the black hat the way the Miami Heat could/should: using superior talent to dominate inferior competition.
The Vols are deep and talented, but we're not '96 Kentucky (or 2010 Kentucky, for that matter). We're not beating teams because we just out-athlete them and score 100 points a night, and we're not so much better than anybody that it allows us to be lazy and get away with it.
Bruce Pearl was already a guy that everyone else in the SEC hated. That's good, you want that guy to be the coach of your school and not at any of the other eleven institutions. But while last year's team was a feel-good story to us that maybe some basketball fans outside the SEC could get behind...this year's team will stand alone. No one wants to cheer for the team with the head coach who cheated.
Since we've already established that Bruce Pearl will be the coach at Tennessee til death do us part, we continue to be behind our basketball team, obviously. The more we win, the less we will be liked - Pearl is no longer the guy who painted his chest, he's the guy who cheated.
But this team is no longer what it used to be either.
For Tennessee to be as good as it is in halfcourt defense, ball movement, and free throw shooting this early in the season is jarring, frankly. This team has March maturity in December. Want more proof? The Vols set the nets on fire by shooting 63.6% from the arc. Tennessee teams of the past that were shooting that well with a big lead? We were straight jacking. This Tennessee team? The Vols only attempted eleven threes today. We used to take that many between media timeouts. But today, eleven was more than enough.
We knew we were deep and talented, but we also knew who we were missing from last year's team. And we knew that the two best players on this team would be a true freshman and the king of inconsistency.
Tobias Harris did hit the first shot of the game for the Vols, but struggled the rest of the way today, finishing just 2 of 8 for 7 points. But he did have 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks. He's a freshman, and Pitt's good. It happens.
What happened for the very first time, however, was Scotty Hopson completely taking over.
Hopson has hit big shots before. He's scored a lot of points against lesser competition. But this was something entirely new, and incredibly welcome.
Hopson got a career high 27 points on a ridiculous 10 of 13 shooting. Only nine of those points came from the arc (though one was a Loftonesque quickdraw "You sure you don't want to guard me from here? MONEY!" shot). The rest came from all over the place: pull-up jumpers, some and-one stuff...but there were also a pair of plays that put the exclamation point on his arrival. Weaving through traffic in the first half, and in transition in the second half, Hopson made it his business to get to the rim...and finally, finally, finished with authority.
Those two dunks are plays he's never made before. He's been getting to the rim more all year, but today it seems he finally realized what we've all been waiting for him to realize: I'm the best player on the floor. And the best player on the floor dunks on the other team.
Hopson is now a really fun player to watch - he had so much hype when he came here as Pearl's first McDonald's All-American, perhaps our initial expectations were unfair. But instead of a one-and-done, we've been treated to a player that's made real progress every year. And I think he even surprised himself some today - on his first dunk, he yelled a full second later than you'd expect him to, like he thought to himself, "Man, that was awesome, I should yell!". And later on an important three point play that stopped a Pitt run, he walked away from the shot with a bunch of swagger...and a huge grin on his face. And for this, we love him.
Pearl made a great point on his postgame show: in Hopson's first two years, the upperclassmen on the team were offense-first guys, and maybe he felt a need to defer to Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, or J.P. Prince. But most of the older guys on this team - Brian Williams, John Fields, Steven Pearl - are defense-first guys. Hopson, thoughtful guy though he may be, doesn't have to worry about getting Fields his touches on the offensive end. Not only is he good enough to get to the rim, he knows he's got more freedom to do so...and good grief, did it show today.
When the faces on the promo are Scotty and Tobias and you play such mature basketball, you shouldn't be the villain. But the narrative of this team will always center around Pearl, and that's going to make Tennessee the bad guy to everyone outside the program, especially if we keep winning.
So I say bring it on.
Tennessee just saw the two best teams in the so-called best conference in America, and spanked them both in hostile environments. And understand this: the one we want the most in this Big East trifecta is the last one. No one from Tennessee likes anyone from UConn. I look forward to finishing the sweep. For Pat.
Even when the refs also seem to think we're the bad guy, it doesn't matter. Today Pitt shot 42 free throws, a dozen more than the Vols (who were fouled intentionally late to boost the total). And Tennessee still blew them out. "Them", again, being the #3 team in the country. Playing at home.
There's plenty of passion left in this thing. Tiger High comes here on January 5. Before them, a good USC team that we're a little more eager to play this year than last, let's just say. And while the SEC will be its usual charming self (and just because they do it more quietly doesn't mean that Vanderbilt isn't just as good as any of us in this thing), it's always been true that the better Tennessee is, the better the UT-UK rivalry - which is exactly what it's been since Pearl arrived, x2 since Cal joined him - will become.
We're going to be the bad guy. But that won't keep us from winning, and enjoying it along the way.
Duke is number one until somebody proves otherwise. But right now, no other team in college basketball has been as impressive as the Vols. Love us or hate us, Tennessee cannot be denied. We play the way we played today, and we'll become the villain. And the way we handle adversity, that's more than fine with me.