It started exactly the way you expected it would against Kevin O'Neill, and ended exactly the way it did just four days ago for Bruce Pearl. Down one with three seconds and change left on a side out-of-bounds, the Vols had to settle for a long three that didn't fall. As a result, Tennessee lost their third straight game - their second by one point - and the beatdown of #3 Pittsburgh just ten days ago now feels more like myth than fact.
Like all of them, this one wasn't lost on the final play...but its frustration was so familiar we have to talk about it for just a second. Tobias Harris took the shot tonight, and while it didn't look like that was the first option this time (as opposed to Cameron Tatum's 30 footer at Charlotte), it's still unacceptable that the Vols can't get a better shot in the final seconds. Especially when you're down only one point - go inside, draw contact, put guys in their comfort zone. You've got enough time. But both times, the Vols have panicked...and as a result, this team still hasn't learned how to win a close game.
Credit USC, who was both lucky and good tonight. They were good where you'd expect them to be: their defense held the Vols to 38.3% shooting and forced 18 turnovers, two things that went hand in hand in keeping the Vols in check. Bruce Pearl's teams have always been good at hitting little six or eight point spurts. But tonight, even when the Vol defense created opportunities, UT couldn't get out of their own way on the offensive end. The Vols had 18 turnovers, and made 18 shots. That won't get much done. The Vols shot 56.3% against Pittsburgh. In the last three losses, the Vols are 68 of 173 (39.3%).
The Trojans were also lucky. Shooting 43% from the arc is one thing...but some of the shots these guys hit, especially in the last few minutes...there's really nothing the Vols can do about off-balance NBA threes in traffic as the shot clock is winding down.
But that's basketball. Both teams again put themselves in position to win tonight - USC with defense and hot shooting, and the Vols at the free throw line (24 of 29, 82.8%). But once again, the other team found a way to win, and the Vols go home the loser.
The upcoming stretch is dangerous for this team, because they've got three more games between now and New Year's Eve, and all three of them are against teams they should beat. The Trojans were good enough and the game had enough storyline punch to mean this would've been a good win for Tennessee tonight. Now, they'll get Belmont (again), UT-Martin, and College of Charleston. No one is going to think this team has a handle on things no matter how much they win all three of those games by...and remember, Belmont already hung with us, and Charleston knows what they're doing: 8-3 with near misses against Maryland and North Carolina. Given that the Vols already lost to a Charlotte team that had no business being within 20 points of us, nothing is out of the question. If the Vols don't come to play, more losses could be out there before we hit 2011. And it won't be until then, with Memphis on January 5, that we have a chance to beat a team that will really make us feel like we're back on track.
I'm trying to type as many words as I can without talking about Scotty Hopson, because I'm writing this immediately following the loss and I want to be as fair as possible to him. So here's a few more: Tobias Harris led the way with 14 points, still consistently good even as the rest of the team struggles. Cameron Tatum returned to form with a pair of threes, but the rest of the team continues to struggle: Tatum was 2 of 3, the rest of the Vols were 2 of 12.
The Vols got good work from Brian Williams, who just missed another double-double with 9 points and 10 rebounds. And Jeronne Maymon continues to bring a spark off the bench, is already the best offensive rebounder on this team, and gets to the free throw line frequently.
The Vols got 11 points from their bench tonight, but that's still not enough. I think Maymon will get more points as he goes along; he had 3 tonight. Trae Golden may not score a bunch, but he's as effective as you can ask a freshman backup point guard to be. And John Fields, who had 4 points tonight, isn't in there to score anyway.
But everyone else is a liability. Steven Pearl was so good at the 4, and made all of his teammates better. Playing at the 3 with Maymon at the 4 though, he's a black hole on the perimeter that is literally unguarded, and isn't as effective on the defensive end.
How much longer do we wait on Skylar McBee? Renaldo Woolridge came back in for a few minutes tonight, but didn't score. Jordan McRae has to get back in the mix soon, just to try something new. The Vols have a talented post player in Kenny Hall that can't get on the floor, but are getting zero offense from their perimeter backups. Someone among Golden, McBee, McRae, or Woolridge is going to have to be able to score some...or we're not going as far as we'd like.
It's a team loss, and the bench and the three point shooting are certainly issues.
So is Scotty Hopson.
Inconsistency is one thing. But tonight, it's like Hopson wasn't even on the floor. In the first half, he had more turnovers (4) than shot attempts (3). In the second half, his body language was as bad as his play. The confidence he played with at Pitt has evaporated, and now it's like he's worse than ever before. This season, his highs have been higher and his lows have been lower, and tonight may be as bad as it's ever been. With some help from USC, Hopson took himself out of the offense, getting six of his eight points at the free throw line. He finished 1 of 5 with 6 turnovers.
If we go as Scotty goes, we're in for a roller coaster. Not just against good teams, but every night. Hopson pulled one of these in the Sweet Sixteen against Ohio State last year. We still won. This year, if Hopson pulls one of these against Charlotte, we lose.
It's unfair to put it all on Hopson, but he's going to be the target. So is Bruce Pearl - just as he's the villain when we're winning, he's the distraction when we're losing. And know this: if the Vols don't beat Memphis, he's going to leave a very fragile team behind when he goes on suspension.
Every season tells a story, and this one got a lot more interesting in ways we never thought it would be, and did so in a hurry. The Vols still haven't figured out how to win a close game, and they may get another one against Belmont in 48 hours. Scotty Hopson has looked better than ever and more lost than ever in a ten day span. And while a team that's 14 deep when everyone is healthy figures out how to play together, they've also got to figure out how to win together...soon.
USC has a good coach and can be a good team when it's all said and done. But the moral of the story is the same tonight as it was against a bad team on Friday: the only way you learn how to win a close game in the final minutes is to do it.
We'll try again on Thursday against Belmont.