The NCAA finally delivered the notice of allegations; Tennessee's athletic department has 90 days to respond. What happens after the response is anyone's guess. For now, it's business as usual on the courts and fields. The rest of the men's basketball season will proceed as normal (although what that looks like is anyone's guess at this point; this team has a great ability to stay in neutral). After that? June 10th looms like a date with a firing squad, and the NCAA will line up Bruce Pearl, Lane Kiffin, and Mike Hamilton in their crosshairs. There's a very real possibility this season is the last we see Bruce Pearl donning an orange jacket four or five times over a season. (Technically, last season might've been the last time we've seen that.)
For a fanbase that grew up on Bruce Pearl's teams and charisma, this is tough. For a guy who preaches passion, poise, and purpose, that's what we're faced with now.
Passion. We know very little of what actually goes on in Pearl's mind, but it's not much of a stretch to think that he's thrown himself into this university. That may be his natural personality - all heart, all the time. That's what we want from our head coach, right? Passion, dedication, the feeling that he truly belongs to us; we like to think that we have the history and tradition that makes coaches fall in love with Knoxville and this university. Dealing with a coach with that characteristics getting ripped away from us by a governing body - that does things like suspend players for making money off their own talent while authorizing their school to sell authentic jerseys with their name on the back - is hard.
There isn't one right way to take this as a fan. Those of us who grew up on Pearl don't know what anything else looks like; those of us who remember Allan Houston might think of things a little bit differently.
Poise. This situation is new to us. We haven't been in a situation where our basketball team has run this afoul of the NCAA. It's easy to think that because we've come this far under Pearl that there's no coming back to the heights he's led Tennessee to. There are large portions of the fanbase who don't know or remember what life under Buzz Peterson was like - and, based on the attendance numbers from that era, they certainly never saw it. Mention Jerry Green to a subset of fans and get blank stares. Nobody wants to see the days of 7,000 people in TBA with an atmosphere that could be described as "three people sitting on the back porch listening to a baseball game on a lazy Sunday afternoon in July".
That doesn't mean that we're not familiar with adversity. This team has been, for lack of better wording, high maintenance. It was that way last season, too, with an us-against-the-world mentality on display for everyone to see thanks to an untimely series of arrests and the dismissal of Tyler Smith. As fans, we responded to that; regardless of how long we followed the men's team, it's tough to say that last year's team wasn't likeable. That they ended the season one basket away from Indianapolis is still a source of pride.
Purpose. We're not going anywhere. We're still Tennessee fans, and if Pearl ends up getting hit with a show-cause we may very well be back to the basketball wastelands. It's on Mike Hamilton - or, possibly, somebody else if the NCAA does come back with a show-cause penalty prior to Hamilton acting - to bring men's basketball back if that happens. But this is our university and our team; who's behind the bench matters since it affects the product on the court, but the jerseys are still orange. If our coach next year wears an orange blazer in Rupp Arena and Memorial Gym, then we'll love him all the same.
In the meantime, this may be Pearl's last team. To be frank, I hope that's not the case, but I'm enough of a realist to recognize the possibility. Treasure the rest of the season regardless of how long it goes, what happens with it, and regardless of what happens after it's over. There's only so many games left.
Passion. On the other hand, it's somewhat understandable to question this team's passion. If you define passion as caring about results on the court and putting forth the best possible effort on all nights, it's a fair criticism. On the other hand, a team completely devoid of passion doesn't win with their backs against the wall in Nashville - and they certainly don't beat Villanova, let alone Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. This team has shown the ability to care before, and if they've shown it before, they can do it again. Now they need to put aside the off-court distractions and band together.
If the NCAA is looming like a cloud over the season for us, what about the team? What about Scotty Hopson, who's on the brink of making The Leap? What about Tobias Harris, whose hand might be forced and whose career might be in the balance? This is hard for Brian Williams, Josh Bone, Melvin Goins, and Josh Fields, even if they won't be around for the fallout - and none of them have it as hard as Steven Pearl, who gets both sides of it. This team isn't young; there isn't a next time for so many key contributors. If they're going to go out in a blaze of glory, now's the time. If they're mad at the NCAA, show it on the court; put this passion to good use.
Poise. Pearl's teams have always done well when everyone's written them off and the stakes are highest. I don't need to remind anyone about what the Kansas game meant last season, or San Diego State, or Ohio State, or Michigan State. We know those games - and, with the exception of Harris, so does this team. If there's going to be anything that comes of this, it's going to be everyone writing this team off - and this team banding together.
It begins with taking every game seriously; it continues with more than Hopson and Harris carrying the team most nights. They can't do it themselves, and for those seniors who won't see another season in orange, this is it. Play smart, play hard. There aren't any free games from here on out.
Purpose. This team has shown it's capable of literally anything on any given night; the last two games are a great example of those. When they want to, I firmly believe this team can be the best in the country. The key, of course, is that they've wanted to twice this season. The second half against Vanderbilt was a start, and there isn't a game remaining this season that counts as a freebie game, or a game where a loss might be an acceptable result. This was true before yesterday, but it's true with gigantic flashing lights and a neon sign now.
If this team plays at its best when the stakes are highest and their backs against the wall, then I have a news flash: we're there. Losses can't keep piling up. Everyone on this team joined to play for Bruce Pearl; they may not get that chance again. If that's the case, send him out a winner - and if it's not the case, send yourself out a winner.
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