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The Curious Case of the 08-09 Vols

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It's not that the honeymoon is over with Bruce Pearl.  We just tend to get confused when the marriage looks a little different in its fourth year.

Tonight's 89-62 win over Louisiana-Lafayette improves Pearl's Vols to 9-2 on the season as the calendar turns to 2009.  Those eleven games include wins over Marquette and Georgetown by a dozen points each on neutral floors, the latter looking especially impressive as it's the Hoyas' only loss this season, and because they just disposed of #2 and previously unbeaten UConn in Storrs in a game they never trailed in.

The eleven games also include a tough tourney loss to Gonzaga that could be avenged next week, and an upset thumping in Philadelphia against Temple.

And it comes on the heels of an SEC Championship and two straight trips to the Sweet 16, which came on the heels of a decade and a half of mediocrity and general apathy...which is why we love Pearl so much.

And the Vols might accomplish those championship dreams again this season. 

It's just going to look a lot different in getting there. 

Make no mistake:  this team will still jack threes with the best of them.  Through eleven games, the Vols are putting up an average of 21 per contest.

But as demonstrated in tonight's 7-for-26 performance, the economy is bad for Bert Bertelkamp too.  The Vols are hitting only 31.8% for the season, and there's just not that sense of confidence when the ball goes up no matter who's taking the shot.

As Pearl pointed out in the postgame tonight, it's not just that you lost Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.  It's that you replaced three seniors as your best shooters (those two plus the pre-cold-streak-of-death Jordan Howell) with three freshmen (Cameron Tatum, Scotty Hopson and Renaldo Woolridge).

Maybe the percentages will improve with maturity (though you do have to wonder about the grind of a 30+ game season in Pearl's system on young legs).  And either way, you haven't heard much from Bruce about poor shot selection because apparently he wants them to keep going up.  Perhaps the return of Ryan Childress will help.

Either way, the Vols are very balanced inside and out - tonight eight players scored seven points or more (and none of it in garbage time since the Vols scored only six points in the last seven minutes) and the Vols' leader in minutes played was...surprise, Josh Tabb at 27.  When healthy - and that includes the present state of both JP Prince and Wayne Chism - this is a team that can still hurt you in a number of ways, even if it's not dictating tempo and hitting a ton of threes.

The real question is, exactly how good is this Tennessee team?

And with that...exactly when are we going to figure that out?

Eleven games down, now the fun begins:  it's at Kansas Saturday (31 game winning streak at home), Gonzaga in Knoxville for the rubber match next Wednesday, and our old friends from Tiger High School later in January to fill out the non-conference slate.

It looks good on paper and sounds good to the national eye:  the two participants in last year's national championship game, and a team that's already beaten the Vols once this season.

But Kansas and Memphis are unranked, the Jayhawks having lost two of three (including an 84-67 thumping from Arizona), and the Tigers are also 8-3.  Still very good, but not quite what we saw from these guys last year.  Gonzaga has also come back to earth, losers of three of their last four after ascending to a #4 ranking.

Maybe it's just North Carolina's college basketball world this season and everybody else is merely passing through; UConn falling to a team the Vols beat leaves no solid arguments for anyone else in their class right now. 

We shake our head sometimes at new faces and a slightly different style of play.  We don't quite know what to make of the same team that beat Georgetown, struggled with Belmont and got attacked by Temple. 

If we haven't figured it out by now, and can't be sure that the answers will come against Kansas, Gonzaga and Memphis because they too are in that same questionable class...what could the SEC tell us?

The Vols, at #14, are currently the only team in the conference ranked in the AP Poll, which is much the way it's been all season.  In fact, only the Gators are also receiving votes.

Including Tennessee, every team in the conference looks vulnerable, and in some cases that's being generous in a backhanded way.  Seven SEC teams have already lost at least three games, and two others haven't played anybody (South Carolina and Arkansas, though that changes Tuesday when the Pigs get the Sooners).

The Vols might struggle early.  Aside from the non-conference, the SEC slate provides a January to survive and a February to thrive:

January:  at Kansas, vs Gonzaga, at Georgia, vs Kentucky, vs South Carolina, at Vanderbilt, vs Memphis, vs LSU, vs Florida

February:  at Arkansas, at Auburn, vs Georgia, vs Vanderbilt, at Ole Miss, at Kentucky, vs Mississippi State

But whether the Vols start slow and finish strong, or if they tear through the whole slate and prove that they're once again the best team in the conference...if the field stays this weak, how much will we really learn?

The Vols could make the tournament at 26-4 or 20-10, and I'm still not really sure how much we'll really know about this team for sure.

But then of course, it's all about March in this game...which in turn is all about the draw and the matchups.

Bruce Pearl's first two teams were less talented and less experienced, but got tremendous draws in March - the first group would've played George Mason in the Sweet 16 had they not been upset by Wichita State, and the second was twenty minutes away from an Elite Eight rematch with a Memphis team they'd obliterated in Knoxville earlier that year before they blew the Ohio State game.

Last year, Pearl's best team reached #1 and won the SEC Championship...but faced a nightmare draw that saw them survive Butler in the second game, face by far the most talented #3 seed in Louisville next...and even if they'd won there, it would've been UNC two days later.  Some years it works out well, some years it just doesn't...and you never know until you get there.

Which is really how I feel about this team. 

The first two years of Pearl spoiled me to the point where, when we weren't always blowing teams out last year and the cancer no one knew Lofton had was messing up his shooting touch, I told some of my friends I felt like we'd make the Final Four and I wouldn't enjoy it along the way.

This time, I'm trying to enjoy the moments more...I just have no idea what to make of them.

We're young, but is that everything to blame when we don't look good?  If Wayne Chism gets back on his feet, how good is he going to play and at what level of consistency from here on out?  Can Tyler Smith win games by himself the way Chris Lofton did when we needed it?  Is the three point shooting going to get better or worse?

Pearl has put the Vols in the center of the relevant basketball conversation, and for that we must remain thankful.  Tonight was the first game I've been to this season, and they were one butt short of having the biggest crowd of the season against a 4-7 Sun Belt foe the week after Christmas with no students to be found.  And that one butt short still left them with 21,863.  I remember being a student in the early part of this decade, and even in Jerry Green's best years, against an opponent like the Rajun Cajuns the place was so cavernously empty that the referees heard every syllable of every word we said.  Now no one can hear anything because most of the crowd has stuck around just to see if they can win a free chicken sandwich. 

The conference may be thin and the group of teams who might be second fiddle to the Tar Heels may be deep, and the Vols find themselves in the midst of both groups.  And like all sports, the season will continue to tell its own story, and the journey will give us a chance to picture the destination more clearly.

Right now, that destination could be the Final Four or an early flame out.  And right now neither would surprise me.  This team is likely to continue to answer some questions and raise others, and the field being the way it is we may not fully know how good we are until it's over.

But along the way, Pearl and the Vols will continue to make it worth our while.

...even when we can't quite bring home the chicken.