On the first day of the year, the Vols had four players arrested on drug and weapon charges. The team responded with the best season in the history of the program and a trip to the Elite Eight that brought us all a lot of joy.
But there's no guarantee that this team will respond to their troubles on the last day of the year: a thirteen point home loss to College of Charleston, our fourth in six games after blowing out #3 Pittsburgh just twenty days ago. Coming into this year, the list of non-conference teams who had won in Knoxville in the Bruce Pearl era read like this: Gonzaga in overtime, Memphis by two. In the last three weeks, that list has grown to include Oakland (who scored 89 points), Southern Cal, and Charleston, who lit us up for 91 on 57.1% shooting.
Among the problems - and the list gets bigger every time we play - is a sudden inability to stop opposing guards. Charleston's starting backcourt today, to their absolute credit, went 17 of 26 (65.4%), 11 of 18 from three (61.1%) for 58 combined points. Andrew Goudelock played the best individual game for a guard vs. the Vols since Jodie Meeks, scoring 31 points with 5 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals.
Meanwhile, Tennessee had only 9 assists as a team. We thought the offensive problem was Scotty Hopson, but it may also be that the entire team relies too much on its two best players: today Hopson was 9 of 21 and Tobias Harris was 5 of 18. The Vols kept feeding the big guns, but it took them both a lot of shots to get their points, and the rest of the team didn't contribute nearly enough: Hopson and Harris combined for 40, the rest of the team had 38.
Unfortunately, losing is nothing new...and now we're running out of opportunities to get it fixed.
The Vols get #21 Memphis in Knoxville on Wednesday night. It should be a good atmosphere and an opponent this team will be ready to face. But after that, Bruce Pearl takes a seat for eight of the next nine games, and SEC play begins. The Vols are now 9-4, but are wins over #7 Villanova and #3 Pittsburgh - both on the road - worth more than losses to Oakland, Charlotte, USC, and Charleston - three of them at home?
Tennessee needs to beat Memphis. Tony Jones - who made a cameo today when Bruce Pearl was ejected - has plenty to deal with in his first stint as a head coach without having to worry about trying to turn this team around. It is a very, very important game...and pressure is mounting from all sides.
I'll say this too: the worst experience I've ever had as a Tennessee fan was Jerry Green's final basketball season. Worse than the Clawfense, worse than watching Derek Dooley's season of more time on the clock, even worse than Wade Houston's 5-22 year. The 00-01 Vols showed you exactly how good they could be...then completely fell apart.
That team started 16-1 (3-0), with double-digit wins over #18 Wisconsin, #23 Iowa, #16 Alabama, and a thirteen point win at the Carrier Dome against #12 Syracuse. They had a combination of youth and experience, and had just made the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in UT history the season before. They were ranked #4 in the country, and we were thinking National Championship.
And then it just all went wrong. They lost eight of their next ten games, including a stretch of five straight where they gave up an average of 89.6 points per night and, as you might imagine, looked very disinterested along the way. Jerry Green never had them ready to play, and it was like they would look up with ten minutes to go and think, "Oh FULMERIZED, we'd better start playing." In fact, Ron Slay said as much as a true freshmen about that team.
Today was the first time I saw this year's Vols display that trait. Charleston was up 20 in a heartbeat, and the Vols never seriously threatened. Is it entitlement, ego, chemistry, or any of those off-the-court issues? Or is it the fact that the Vols can't hit a three and can't stay in front of opposing guards, on-the-court issues?
My greatest fear is that it's both.
Bruce Pearl, whose situation certainly isn't getting any better with every loss, has one more night to try and turn this around before handing it over to someone else for awhile. For every reason, Memphis has become the most important game of the year. Pearl has done everything we could've dreamed of as our head coach. Now in year six, he'll get a chance to again show us something new: stop this slide, save this season, and put more of his own destiny back in his own hands.
Happy New Year. Here's to less drama in 2011.