Tennessee has played well enough to give themselves a chance to beat Duke, Memphis, and Pittsburgh. Their only other loss was on the backside of Maui at an Oakland team that should again make the NCAA Tournament.
Today, Austin Peay returned center John Fraley to the lineup, who was back for the first time since the season opener when he went out with a concussion. That helped, but nothing changes the fact that Austin Peay was a 1-9 basketball team...and they just beat Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Until last year, the list of non-conference foes that had beaten the Vols in Knoxville since the arrival of Bruce Pearl read like this: Gonzaga in overtime, Memphis by two points. Then last December, Tennessee fell to Oakland, USC, and Charleston (who we'll see on Wednesday night). Still, Oakland and USC made the NCAA Tournament, Charleston made the NIT.
This was 1-9 Austin Peay. A team that it truly felt like Tennessee was toying with, building a lead of a dozen, watching them work it back down around seven, then building it back to double digits again.
But the Vols never did enough to put them away. The Vols were up eleven with 6:27 to play. From there, Austin Peay closed on a 21-6 run that included five Tennessee turnovers and the Governors hitting their last seven shots. It was a slow meltdown, but a meltdown all the same.
Austin Peay made some tough shots, sure. You might get lucky and hit five of eight threes like they did today. But you don't call 59.1% from the floor luck. That's bad defense. And when you combine it with 1 of 9 from Trae Golden and 0 of 6 from Cameron Tatum? That's how 1-9 teams find a way to win in your building.
And now, everyone associated with Tennessee Basketball that just spent the last three weeks believing we were better than we thought must now face the possible reality that we're even worse than we originally feared.
There's no way to know which one is the more accurate picture yet, and there's more evidence for good than bad. But this was an atrocious loss to an atrocious team, one that there is simply no comparison for in the Pearl Era; you have to go back to Buzz Peterson's last year, when he lost games like this that made most turn their backs on the program. Cuonzo Martin is in no danger of losing his job, of course, but what was already dwindling fan support will take a huge hit with a loss like this, and no chance to rebuild momentum until January.
The Oakland loss was a growing pains, maturation issue. I was fine with that, and most were too. But you can't call this one anything but terrible. There was no excuse for the Vols to lose to Austin Peay.
Tennessee got 18-9 from Jeronne Maymon and 12-10 from Kenny Hall, but when the Govs went zone the Vols lost all offensive poise and failed to stay productive in the paint. Jordan McRae stepped up in the second half and finished with 14, but unless Skylar McBee was hitting a three, Tennessee had no other offense. Down the stretch, the Vols didn't even get their big fellas a look inside: according to ESPN's play-by-play, Kenny Hall's last shot attempt came at 18:59. Jeronne Maymon's came at 13:55.
An entire season can't be lost in one game, but it's without exaggeration that we say this is the worst loss since UT-Chattanooga beat the Vols in Knoxville in Peterson's final season. And even that may not be a fair comparison. UTC beat the Vols that day for the first time since 1925. Austin Peay had never beaten Tennessee until today.
The Vols go on the road to try and pick up the pieces, Wednesday night at what was supposed to be the most dangerous foe in this six game December mid-major run: Charleston is 7-1 and beat the Vols by 13 last year. But even though they lost a lot of points, the fact that Austin Peay was 1-9 and just beat Tennessee says very bad things about this program right now, so the Cougars are without question good enough to beat us.
Tennessee falls to 3-5, and its program took a huge hit today as well. Charleston is next. Tennessee needs to get it turned back the right way in a hurry, because all the good feelings we had about this basketball team went down in the loss today.