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Tennessee 69, Vanderbilt 50: Vols rediscover the joy of stealing

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I've just rediscovered the biggest factor in what makes basketball fun.

Steals.

Steals. That's the primary reason why Tennessee fans love Bruce Pearl. That's why this year's version of BruceBall has seemed somehow deficient. More frustrating. Not as exciting. That's why we've been measuring wins against the other teams in the conference more often than unleashing woos during games.

Steals. Check this out:

Season

National Ranking in Steals Per Game

2005-2006
5
2006-2007
9
2007-2008
11
2008-2009
159

Those are Bruce Pearl's four years at Tennessee and his teams' respective national rankings in Fun. I'm telling you, steals are Where the Fun's At.

Today's 69-50 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores wasn't only a solid win in a tight SEC race, and it wasn't just the second blowout in as many games for the Vols. As important as those things are, this game, at least the second half, was replete with woos. It was fun. And it was full of steals.

Sure, Tyler Smith had a fantastic game, even for him, putting up a Tennessee career-high 30 points on 10-13 shooting from the field, 3-4 shooting from behind the arc, and 7-8 shooting from the stripe, and adding five boards and three assists.

And J.P. Prince is quickly becoming the Dane Bradshaw of this team, the "Blender" who just makes things happen. Pajamas has a knack for changing the geometry of the Vols' half court offense, finding areas and angles in the offense that appear to be invisible or inaccessible to the rest of the team. Prince had only eight points this afternoon, but he made this team go, and he dominated the rest of the stat sheet: Ten rebounds, including four on the offensive glass, seven assists, and three blocks.

But the reason for the woos was the steals. Tennessee deprived the 'Dores of possession of the ball 15 times, and a bunch of different players got into the action. Smith had four, Prince had three, Wayne Chism, Josh Tabb, and Cam Tatum each had two, and Bobby Maze and Brian Williams had one each.

Simply taking the ball away from the opponent is satisfying enough, but the real magic happens after that. It's like an Eric Berry interception return. Every player thinks one thing is happening and then -- BOOM -- everything changes in an instant. Players are scrambling for position, the thief and his teammates are spreading and heading for the basket in attack mode, and the odds are suddenly and substantially increased that the play will end exceptionally, whether by a thunderdunk, a bucket-plus-one, a kick-out for an open three, or a foul. The crowd roars, and the players begin to bounce and crouch and clap their hands and pound the floor, eager to do it all over again, and the opponent takes another slippery step toward discombobulation.

Steals don't just deprive the enemy of the opportunity to score, and they don't just lead to buckets on the other end. Steals lead to wins, and they make wins fun. If this game is any indication, this young Tennessee team is discovering the joy of Bruce Pearl's system, how to steal the ball and otherwise create turnovers. If they continue to do that, more wins and woos are on the horizon.