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Tennessee & Kevin O'Neill: The Reunion

"If you don't value possessions against a Kevin O'Neill-coached team, you're going to come out on the losing end." - Bruce Pearl

Tennessee Basketball is ranked 8th in the nation, has won championships and enjoys national relevance because of the work of Bruce Pearl and his staff, and they deserve all the credit.  But a decade before Pearl came to Knoxville to resurrect the program, the Vols hired Kevin O'Neill from Marquette and asked him to achieve the same feat.  And while O'Neill never got to personally enjoy the fruit of his labor, and the process appeared to die again a few years after O'Neill left, there is still a faint connection between O'Neill and Pearl on the continuum of growth of Tennessee Basketball.  And despite his departure under less than ideal circumstances, O'Neill should be appreciated for his contribution to the program.

When O'Neill was hired in the spring of 1994 after leading Marquette to the Sweet 16, Tennessee Basketball was at an all-time low.  The Vols had gone 5-22 (2-14 SEC) in Wade Houston's final season, and attendance at the cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena - in only its seventh year of existence - was way down.  Fewer people cared about Tennessee Basketball at the end of Houston's tenure than perhaps ever before. 

If you wanted to hire the opposite of Wade Houston, O'Neill was probably the right guy:  instead of trying to make a living with offense (read:  the coach's son) and playing nothing resembling defense, O'Neill came in with a physical, deliberate, defensive style.  And O'Neill also brought discipline to a program that had none, immediately running some players off and making the most of the talent he had left.  It was a noticeable change in every way.   

The Man 

In the Vols' first game under O'Neill, the team got a standing ovation in a 74-54 win over Tennessee Tech simply for playing hard, because we hadn't seen that in so long.  He doubled Tennessee's wins in and out of conference, going 11-16 (4-12 SEC) with a depleted roster.  The change in style turned the Vols from a team that gave up 77 points per game in '94 to 63 points per game in '95.

O'Neill's second season in '95-'96 was his best in Knoxville, and continued the process.  The Vols went 13-13 (6-10 SEC) in the regular season, beating a ranked team (#22 Georgia) for the first time in four years, and playing competitive basketball:  the Vols were only blown out once, by #2 Kentucky. 

This was a scrappy group, led by Steve Hamer and Damon Johnson.  The Vols were methodical and deliberate on both ends of the floor, with O'Neill's personality providing the only fireworks.  Our season tickets for basketball are on the second row of the upper deck, and back then you could hear the THUD of O'Neill kicking the Revco sign next to the bench, usually followed by an obscenity, all the way up there.  There was nothing better than the postgame show with O'Neill and John Ward, where the coach's dry sense of humor played right into Ward's hands.  The Vols weren't great, but they were improving and they played hard, and fans appreciated them for it.

A 13-13 record meant the Vols needed a win in the SEC Tournament to be eligible for the NIT, and Steve Hamer delivered the game of his life against Alabama.  The stat we ran the other day about the most rebounds in a single game in Tennessee history is actually for the regular season only, because Hamer pulled down 21 - still an SEC Tournament record - in a 77-65 win for the Vols that got them into the NIT.  This may seem like a small thing in 2009, but in 1996 that win was a very big deal.

O'Neill went to work on the recruiting trail, and is responsible for bringing all of the guys who got Tennessee back to March Madness to Knoxville:  Brandon Wharton, CJ Black, Charles Hathaway, Tony Harris, Isiah Victor, and even Vincent Yarbrough in the early stages were all O'Neill recruits.  Going into Memphis and getting Harris was a big deal, and O'Neill stocked the cupboard for a future Vol run.  Tennessee struggled in '96-'97 to an 11-16 mark, with Wharton a sophomore and Black and Hathaway freshmen.  During that year, there was a dispute about the eligibility of Isiah Victor.  The clearinghouse deemed him eligible, but the UT administration still had their reservations, and athletic director Doug Dickey made the call to keep Victor sidelined throughout the season.  O'Neill vehemently disagreed with this decision...and the foundation was set for change.

Soon after the '97 season ended, O'Neill was packing his bags and heading for Northwestern, to take a job at a school where football wasn't king and women's basketball wasn't important.  Jerry Green came into Knoxville and inherited all of O'Neill's talent, and immediately took the Vols to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

O'Neill didn't find success at Northwestern, and has spent much of this decade in the NBA, with one year as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors and several others as an assistant coach.  He returned to the head coaching fold on an interim basis at Arizona before landing the USC job in the offseason.

The Style

What Pearl said is right:  you have to value possessions against O'Neill's teams, because they will milk the clock and make sure they get every second out of theirs.  In three seasons in Knoxville, O'Neill's teams averaged 60, 62, and 57 points per game, but held the opposition to the low 60s every year as well.  In O'Neill's final season, the Vols played a 42-41 overtime game at Penn State.

Back then, O'Neill wanted to control every shot - the Vols had a power forward named Torrey Harris who was a good rebounder and defender, but had no shooting touch to speak of.  Harris was instructed not to shoot...ever.  More than once, he got an offensive rebound two feet from the basket, and turned to find someone to kick the ball out to, because that's what O'Neill demanded.  Very, very deliberate.

This year at USC, the Trojans are off to a 4-4 start.  And here again, they average only 59 points per game, but they allow only 58 points per game.  They held Sacramento State to 36, and no team has hit 80 on them this season.  A total commitment to defense and a deliberate, methodical offense that slows the game way down has always been O'Neill's style, and it appears to be no different this season in LA.

There's no question the Vols have more talent.  And if Tennessee can get out on a run against the Trojans, it's going to be very hard for USC to come back - this is not a style that permits the jacking of threes early in the shot clock.  But if USC can play their tempo, they'll make the Vols work for every point.  Tennessee played poorly on the road in the non-conference last season (Temple and Kansas), and this is their first true test.  Can they wear USC down, or will O'Neill's style have its way with them? 

O'Neill moved Tennessee Basketball forward, and put the pieces in place for a brief championship run that followed his departure.  He's older and wiser now, but still running the same system.  And at USC, if he recruits as hard as he used to, the future could be bright.  For now, the Vols need to come to California prepared for a fight, and make sure they outwork and outlast what will be a well coached, disciplined opponent.  If the Vols value every possession and play smart, Tennessee should win.  But don't doubt O'Neill's ability to frustrate them along the way.  Every possession will count.