It's tempting and easy to pile on this Tennessee team, and to connect the dots between our previous losses and this one. And don't worry, I'm getting ready to. But first, let me say congrats to Florida, and let's all recognize that the Gators are a good basketball team that beat the Vols in overtime. In other years, there would be little shame in losing this game this way.
But in this year, frustration compounds every night. The season is a marathon and conference play is a twice-a-week grind, but everyone associated with Tennessee - the players, the coaches (present and absent), and the fans - doesn't look like they're having any fun. This team is in a slide, and can't play consistently enough to break out of it, for more than one game...or one possession.
One of the defining marks of Bruce Pearl's tenure in Knoxville is the quick spurt: an 8-0 run in the blink of an eye, created by the press from Pearl's early teams, and by halfcourt defense creating transition opportunities last year. Those same opportunities have been there this season when Tennessee has played ranked foes...but in the grind, the regular games that make up 75-80% of your season, the Vols are prone to close games and turnovers.
Case in point: the Vols took a 29-21 lead on a Tobias Harris baseline score with 5:46 to play in the first half. The Gators then closed the half on an 11-2 run to retake the lead. Tennessee never got it back. UT had a 14-2 run to get that eight point lead. The only other "run" Tennessee had in the game was a single 6-0 spurt in the second half, with two of those points coming at the free throw line.
To their credit, Tennessee didn't quit, didn't fold, and seemed to play hard for the most part. The Gators pushed it to eight at 48-40 with 14:02 to play, and it took more than nine minutes just to tie it again, 64-64 with a Trae Golden layup off a turnover. When the Gators scored the next four points, the Vols stayed alive with two Scotty Hopson free throws and a Brian Williams putback. The latter took place with 1:44 to play in regulation. The next Tennessee made basket came with 33 seconds left in overtime.
Both teams made the defensive plays they needed to make to get it to the extra session: an Alex Tyus block on UT's last possession, and solid Volunteer defense on Florida's final chance. But in overtime, the Vols started 0-4 with a pair of turnovers, and that was enough to allow the Gators to build a six point lead, then make it seven after a pair of Hopson free throws with a Kenny Boynton dagger three as the shot clock wound down. That put the Gators up 77-70 with :45 to play, and the deed was done.
We connect the dots because this team started 7-0 and is now 10-6. But I'm not sure if we should take comfort or fall into a deeper despair over the following assumptions that were proven false tonight:
- "If only Scotty Hopson was more consistent!" - Hopson had 20 points and zero turnovers tonight, in 39 minutes. In the last six games, he's averaging 18.5 points...and the Vols are 3-3 with close calls against Belmont and UT-Martin.
- "If only we could get hot from three!" - The Vols were 7 of 20 tonight, and that included a couple of desperation heaves at the end of overtime.
- "If only Cameron Tatum would regain his early season form!" - Tatum played one of his best games of the season tonight: 21 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 threes.
- "We should shorten the rotation!" - Check. Skylar McBee played two minutes. Even with overtime, the Vol starters played a ton of minutes: Melvin Goins 35, Tatum and Tobias Harris 36, Hopson 39.
...and we still lost.
Some of it was the same: the turnovers were frustrating but not crazy (12, actually one below the team's average). The newest demon is post defense: after getting exposed by Arkansas, the Vols were flat out beaten by Alex Tyus (18 points on 8 of 12) and Vernon Macklin (11 points). On the other end? Brian Williams and John Fields had only six each. Tobias Harris had another ho-hum double-double (18-10). I'm terrified we're going to struggle all year, miss the tournament, and then Tobias is going to leave without us ever really getting to enjoy or appreciate him.
That missing the tournament conversation isn't crazy talk, and you know me - I'm not one for negativity. But reality shows a team that's 10-6, 0-2. Again: Florida is a good team that beat us in overtime. You expect some of these in the SEC. But when you've already lost to Oakland, Charlotte, USC, Charleston, and Arkansas, you've lost the ability to just shake losses to good teams off. Tennessee needs wins, and needs more quality wins to offset the non-quality losses.
It's not going to get any easier anytime soon. Vanderbilt is an even better basketball team, and they'll be in here Saturday. Then it's at Georgia, at UConn. The schedule does get significantly easier in the back half of Tony Jones' interim stint, but by the time we get there the Vols could already be out of the bracket and out of the conversation.
There are no easy answers, and no easy nights on the horizon. The pressure mounts with every loss on a team that's already without its head coach. And the clock is ticking.
Basketball is fun. Tennessee needs to do whatever it can to remember that. Hopefully the larger stage with ESPN College Gameday in town on Saturday will make a difference and give us a lift, and return us to the form we had against Villanova, Pittsburgh, and Memphis (a group Vanderbilt belongs in). I know we shouldn't need an external lift...but right now I'll take whatever we can get. I don't doubt the effort tonight...but this team couldn't get over the hump against the Gators, and is spinning its wheels in close losses. Even if every one of these close losses had gone the other way - if the Vols were 15-1 - the basketball issues would remain, and they seem to change with every loss.
The season is halfway over - we're guaranteed 31 regular season games and one in the SEC Tournament - and Tennessee won't see the light or slay all its demons with one win over Vanderbilt, even if they beat the Dores the same way they've handled Pitt, Nova, and Tiger High. It's still a marathon...but we've got to pick up the pace. At this point, the next mile is the most important one the rest of the way home.
The Vols have to play better...but they need to find a way to have fun again too. There's an excellent opportunity and an excellent opponent on a national stage with College Gameday on Saturday. I fully expect to ride the roller coaster the rest of the way home. But we've got to slow the descent and start climbing again, or this ride is going to end sooner than any of can believe.
Roller coasters can be scary, but they're also supposed to be fun. Only way to change things is to win.