This is usually the time of year where we start pointing out how many days are left until football season. But for the first time, I find myself wanting to point out how many days are left until basketball season instead.
Bruce Pearl coached his first game in Knoxville on the same weekend the Vols lost to Vanderbilt in football. It was Mike Hamilton who was fond of saying that the basketball program needed not just a coach, but an evangelist. And at a university that's seen its football team backslide to 36-27 (.571) in the last five years, Pearl has resurrected men's basketball to the tune of 126-46 (.732).
Of Pearl's five Tennessee teams, this one has been the most memorable...which is really saying something, given the fact that the first one had the most surprising season I've seen from any team in Knoxville, and the third one spent a week at the top of the polls.
As a writer, you find that some teams give themselves to you more easily than others. My favorite team to write about had been the 2007 football Vols, who'd spend one week losing to Florida by 39 points, and the next beating Georgia by three touchdowns. Until January 1 of this year, it was the best story I knew.
But this basketball team was not only a good story...they were so much fun to cheer for. The '07 football season was a roller coaster because on some Saturdays, the team was lousy. This basketball season threatened to become a roller coaster only because of the gravity of an off-the-court issue...and then the unbelievable nature of this team's response made it something so much more.
The early hopes we had for a team that brought everyone back as defending SEC East Champions (though we lost Emmanuel Negedu and Josh Tabb to off-court issues) were validated in a one point loss to #6 Purdue in the Paradise Jam Tournament finals. And the two main storylines from that game - Wayne Chism's dominance and Scotty Hopson's inconsistent play - were a sign of things to come.
The week before Christmas, the Vols played their worst basketball and suffered the worst loss of the Pearl Era (at the time), 77-55 at Southern Cal. In that game, Tennessee shot 2 of 22 from the arc, was outrebounded 43-17, and allowed a transfer point guard playing his first game in 21 months to do whatever he wanted. It was a performance that raised central questions of leadership:
Who is the leader of this team?
There is both a personality component and an on-the-floor component to this question, but it's very valid. When the Vols need a bucket, who do they go to? And when the team is in a funk and falling behind, who will pick this team up? Who will put them on their shoulders and turn the tide? Who will carry that responsibility?
Right now, the best-case answer is we don't know yet. And the worst-case answer is no one, because most of these guys faced this question last year.
Tennessee has a bunch of good, talented players. But playing like this, we are not a good team. Who will take charge and show some authority with this team? And who will become the guy or group of guys we can count on when we need points? Until we find the answers to those questions, Tennessee will not be as good as they want to be. If they thought they were already, they got a dose of reality today.
Heading to New Year's, we were a 9-2 team that was potentially just another nine seed in the making, with the same players and the same questions from the year before. The Vols took a step toward answering those questions in a 66-59 win at Memphis, and then took a giant leap in the opposite direction the very next day.
I've said this before and I'll say it again: it's an exhausting thing, being a Tennessee fan. We know drama. In his five years at this university, Bruce Pearl has witnessed the end of the Phillip Fulmer Era, seen Pat Summitt win two National Championships and bow out in the first round, and watched Lane Kiffin steal his throne for the best soundbite on campus. And at the start of the new decade, we watched a big basketball win at Memphis, a deflating football loss to Virginia Tech, and the moment that changed everything for this basketball team in less than 24 hours.
Read the comments on the story as it broke. With Tyler Smith, Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum, and Melvin Goins arrested on drug and weapons charges, on January 1 our season was on life support. The Vols were 10-2, but with two-thirds of the season left to be played, nothing was guaranteed. The majority of Vol fans, at the time, believed that just making the NCAA Tournament would be a major accomplishment, even more so when Tyler Smith was ultimately dismissed from the team. And we were right.
Consider this: if this team had gone 9-9 without those players, squeaked into the tournament as one of the last four in, and got bounced in the first round by a higher seed...we still would've said that Pearl did a good job keeping things together, right? Given what happened and the way things looked on January 1, that would've been a finish we could all respect.
But with all expectations for the season removed, this team went on to create an entirely new set of expectations for the entire program.
It started against Charlotte. There was a moment in that game, where the passionate Vols had built a 22 point halftime lead only to watch Charlotte cut it to 6 early in the second. If we had expended everything we had in that opening burst, only to find that we just truly weren't very good without those four players and gone on to blow the whole lead and lose this game...on some level, it would've been understandable. This was the timeout where Pearl grabbed Scotty Hopson and Kenny Hall by the jersey, which remains the most passionate display I've ever seen from him. And the Vols responded with a run that put the game back out of reach.
That run was sparked by back-to-back threes by Skylar McBee. And it was, of course, McBee who hit the biggest shot in the very next game against #1 Kansas.
Of course, we know the whole story now, and know that the win over #1 Kansas would be followed by victories over #2 Kentucky and 2-seed Ohio State. But the second two came when the Vols had re-established themselves as a good basketball team, playing with the rotation that carried us to the Elite Eight. This Kansas game, if it happens in any other season, gets its own DVD.
(...actually, that's probably not true. Because all of our seasons have been great as long as Pearl has been here. Seriously, does he have his raise yet?)
The point remains that of all the improbable victories of the Pearl Era, this one is at the top. I'll see the win at Texas in Pearl's first year and raise you with this game - the Longhorns completely overlooked us, and that Tennessee team was still playing with Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson. This Tennessee team was playing with six scholarship players and three walk-ons, then got only 19 minutes from Wayne Chism and 14 from J.P. Prince due to foul trouble. The circumstances with the arrests meant not only was Tennessee emotionally vulnerable, but Kansas was at least paying attention. And this Kansas team finished the year as the number one overall seed in college basketball.
Tennessee beat Kansas with Renaldo Woolridge, Skylar McBee, and Josh Bone, who shot a combined 7 of 12 from beyond the arc. Woolridge didn't play in 8 of Tennessee's final 13 games, and his only playing time in the NCAA Tournament was a Club Trillion performance against Ohio. McBee didn't play in 4 of Tennessee's final 8 games, and played only five meaningful NCAA Tournament minutes against San Diego State. And Josh Bone played only garbage minutes in fifteen consecutive games from January 31 through the first round of the NCAA Tournament, getting seven minutes in three blowouts and sitting on the bench for all of the other twelve...before Pearl stuck him right back in the lineup with confidence against Ohio, Ohio State, and Michigan State. Three guys who weren't good enough to crack our best rotation beat the number one team in the country. The game was so unbelievable it earned the rare triple game recap.
Proving it was no fluke, the six scholarship/three walk-on rotation opened SEC play with three straight wins over Auburn, Ole Miss, and Alabama. When our football coach ran for the simple life on the west coast, the basketball team was the good story we needed to keep us from the pit of despair. If there's a more dramatic period in the history of Tennessee Athletics than December 31-January 16, from the Memphis win to the Dooley presser...I don't want to know about it, and neither does Mike Hamilton.
The good vibes had to run out eventually, and the Vols hit the wall with a loss at Georgia, ending their seven game win streak, five without the arrested players. When Tennessee returned home and lost a shootout to a good Vanderbilt team, we wondered if we'd already seen the best this depleted roster had to offer, and if there was any way we could win as consistently as we had in the three weeks prior.
That made January 31 against Florida one of the most important swing games of the season, and Scotty Hopson made sure it went in the right direction. The Vols beat Florida 61-60 thanks to Hopson's gutsy jumper in the final seconds, and played with a defensive intensity in the second half that was a sign of things to come. As we enter offseason conversations about Hopson, we should point out that he did make progress this season, despite his continued inconsistency: this was the first time we put the ball in his hands for the win, and he responded. The ball went his way in the closing seconds of the Michigan State game as well...these can be valuable experiences for a still-maturing player, who will play an even bigger role as the go-to guy in the final minutes next year.
The Vols picked up a win at LSU and a blowout over South Carolina to get to 18-4, 6-2 in the SEC. Our ultimate goal was still just to make the NCAA Tournament, but there had been enough consistency with the depleted roster to again raise expectations. Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins were fully back, and now Brian Williams was on his way - and who could've imagined as late as mid-February how valuable he would become?
In our first test of whether or not we were an elite team, the Vols failed. Tennessee got waxed in Nashville and then lost in Rupp Arena, dropping both games by a combined 30 points. Back at 18-6, 6-4 in the SEC, the dreams of winning a regular season title were dashed, and with expectations once again lowered, we just needed to make the dance. The Vols beat Georgia and South Carolina but lost at Florida, putting Tennessee at 20-7, 8-5 in the SEC.
We were in, probably. And again here, the season was already respectable. The story could've ended that way, just respectable. A signature win over Kansas and a gritty team that finds a way to make the tournament despite the loss of its best player.
But in one month, from February 27-March 28, Tennessee took its respectable story and made it the best we've ever heard.
It started with a win over #2 Kentucky that was big not just for the season, but the rivalry: only the Vols and Devan Downey beat the Cats in the regular season, and as Kentucky and Tennessee were both knocked out in the Elite Eight, Bruce Pearl continues to do his job of keeping the Vols right with Kentucky in the relevant SEC frontrunner conversation, and keeping the Cats aware that Tennessee isn't going away. The game itself saw Tennessee build a 19 point lead in the second half, lose all of it, and then score the game's final nine points, including another huge shot from Scotty Hopson. Tennessee got a win against one of the most talented Kentucky teams in history. That's bigtime.
After a senior night win over Arkansas, Tennessee traveled to Starkville to play a Mississippi State team in desperate need of a win...and the Vols unloaded a 17-0 run to start the game, en route to a 16 point victory. It was Tennessee's most impressive performance to date, our best basketball on the final night of the regular season. Hope was building, as was our seed...or so we thought.
Two wins in the SEC Tournament left us facing Kentucky again in the semifinals...and with nine minutes to play, the Vols trailed by six. We were again grinding it out, and again hoping that we could stay with them. But in the final nine minutes, Kentucky did what great Kentucky teams do, and stepped on the gas. A close game turned into the worst loss of the Pearl Era, with Kentucky winning by 29 in front of a national television audience. The next night, we discovered that the selection committee was watching too: the Vols, projected by most to be a 4 seed, ended up with a 6.
We also had a date with San Diego State, and the vast majority of the talking heads called for the upset.
Maybe this team plays best as an underdog. I think there's no doubt that we were seeded lower than we should have been. Maybe that was the motivation we needed.
But I think the best explanation for what we saw in the NCAA Tournament is the simplest: it was there all along, we just had to grow into it.
This team had the progression everybody wants: we got better as the season went along. Our process was much more complicated because of the arrests, and the subsequent upset of Kansas with the depleted roster that screwed with our expectations even more. But now that we view this season as a whole, the team that looked so good in March only really started playing together in late February. Our seniors led us throughout, each taking on expanded roles in leadership and in play after the arrests. Scotty Hopson, though still inconsistent, made progress. When Tatum and Goins worked their way back into the picture, we grew a little more. And the final piece of the puzzle was Brian Williams, who returned and became better than ever.
Williams' first start was the loss at Florida, where Chism played only 15 minutes with foul trouble and was playing at something way less than 100%. After that, Tennessee went 8-2 with Chism and Williams on the floor together, playing basically the same rotation throughout (give or take Josh Bone for Skylar McBee). We got blown out by Kentucky, in part because we were exhausted and in part because they're Kentucky. And we lost to Michigan State by one point in the Elite Eight.
With this rotation, we beat Kentucky, blew out Mississippi State in Starkville, beat another team playing for their tournament lives in the SEC Tournament with the win over Ole Miss, and then hit the tournament with our very best basketball. Did the underdog/"nobody believes in us!" thing help? Sure. But Tennessee was being discussed as a two or three seed before the last nine minutes of that Kentucky game. We didn't all of a sudden turn into a sub-par team. Tennessee went from a scrappy group with a lot of heart to a very good basketball team in the final month of the season. And in the tournament, we proved it.
Against San Diego State, we took an even matchup and came out on the right end of it, making the plays in the final minute that the Aztecs didn't in a 62-59 win. When Ohio upset 3-seed Georgetown, the Vols were more than happy to play at a faster pace, locking down on the once-hot Bobcats en route to an 83-68 win that sent us back to the Sweet 16 for the third time under Pearl.
And for me, the strongest memory of this season will not be Michigan State, but Ohio State. Tennessee had a good season locked up when that game tipped off, making the Sweet 16 in a year when no one expected us to post-January 1. The only thing left to do was make history.
Ohio State was a good basketball team. But one final time, the Vols proved they were too, making their strongest case in our most exciting game of the year. It was so fitting that the Vols' two best players in March were Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince, both named to the All-Midwest Regional team. Chism played his best game as a Vol against the Buckeyes with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Prince had 14 points and 5 assists, and blocked Evan Turner's shot at the buzzer to seal the win. Tennessee erased the memories of its most painful loss of the Pearl Era with its best win, 76-73 over 2-seed Ohio State, sending us to the Elite Eight for the very first time.
We came up short against Michigan State, by one point. But my hope and my belief is that as this program has now moved forward with our most celebrated season, that one point will keep us hungry. Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince, and Bobby Maze are now gone but not forgotten. Several of you have made this point already, and I'll agree with it: just as we couldn't imagine Tennessee Basketball without Chris Lofton, I have a hard time picturing this team without The Headband (and how great did Chism - who has more wins than any Tennessee player, ever - have to be to become the most famous headband in school history, playing in the same decade as Ron Slay?).
But the guys that return - especially the guys that will become leaders, like Williams, Tatum, and Hopson - combined with the guys coming in with the fourth best recruiting class in the nation, should have hunger instead of entitlement. We were one point away from the Final Four. The returning players will not face any more adversity than they did this year, and they handled it beautifully. And the newcomers could be talented enough to push us forward to our new promised land. Let's also take this opportunity to note the player development ability of this staff, who got C.J. Watson to the NBA, Chris Lofton to become more than just a shooter, Dane Bradshaw to play power forward, JaJuan Smith from walk-on to star...and has helped put Chism and Prince in NBA Draft conversations. I can't wait to see what else they can do with Brian Williams and Scotty Hopson, and how they'll use Tobias Harris.
The future is bright. But we celebrate the present: this was the greatest season in the history of Tennessee Basketball, not simply because of the wins - though the Kansas-Kentucky-Ohio State trifecta is something no team in college basketball can match - but because of the story, the players, and the coach. Every season tells a story. This one is my favorite.
On a personal note...thanks for reading (especially if you made it this far) and for following along all season. The comments on all of those linked stories above help give a feel for what we were all going through throughout this season, and the fact that we now need first and second half game threads for both football and basketball is a beautiful thing.
Along those lines, as our site keeps growing, it's been incredible to see people respond to not just the football news - of which we've had plenty - but this basketball team. It's gonna be close, but we could end up having more visits to this site in March than we had in any month during football season. That's a testament not only to our readers and our outstanding community, but what Bruce Pearl and Tennessee Basketball continues to do.
For the record, there are
163 158 (this is why I don't do math) days until it's Football Time in Tennessee...but as soon as Bruce lets us know who we're playing next, we'll all be just as ready for Year Six.