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A Hopefully Unnecessary Defense of Bruce Pearl

The curse of March Madness is that 63 teams go home with a loss.  In fact, with the conference tournament structure in college basketball, only 2 of 347 teams get to win their last game of the season, and I think we'd all rather be one of those 63 last losers than the team that wins the NIT.

So in a way, every season ends on a disappointing note.  Even Bruce Pearl's first three teams lost games in the tournament that left Vol fans shaking their heads:  an upset loss at the hands of 7 seed Wichita State in 2006 in the second round, the first time all season that the Vols had been beaten by a team with less talent.  The run to the Sweet 16 in 2007 was great, and there was no shame on paper in losing to #1 Ohio State...but the way it happened, blowing a 20 point lead and shooting less than 50% at the free throw line, that one point loss still felt like death.

Last year, Pearl's Vols were so good that anything less than the Final Four was going to feel like a disappointment.  So when they were undressed by Louisville in the Sweet 16, it was another great season that ended on a very sour note.

This year, Tennessee lost a two point game in an 8/9 matchup in the opening round.  It hurts.  We're disappointed.

But one of the questions that seems to be floating around a lot - and has been, really, for the past several weeks - is exactly how disappointed we should be?

Because there's a lot going on right now, and a lot that I read and hear, and don't the back of my mind, I'm worried.

I'm not worried about the direction of this program under Bruce Pearl.  I'm terrified of any possibility that it might be left without him.

Now, let's be clear:  there were some apparent struggles and blatant inconsistencies with this team.  Pearl himself said yesterday in the postgame that he felt like this was his first team in Knoxville that really left something on the table. 

I think it's unfair to be disappointed in this team based on preseason ranking; early polls especially in college basketball are guesswork, and you have 30ish regular season games to figure out who's really good and who's really not, three times as many as in college football.  That a team that lost Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Jordan Howell, Duke Crews and Ramar Smith was ranked 13th in the first poll of the year is both a testament to the name recognition Pearl has built at Tennessee, and the general lunacy of the preseason poll itself.

However, in those 30 games we did see some issues to be disappointed about - the inconsistency, several guards posting consecutive career nights against our defense back in December and January, plenty of frustrating close losses (though all against good teams)...and perhaps too, that this team just didn't look like the three before them.  There was no press and no three point shooting, and I think Pearl really struggled with the identity of this team all year.  It sounded like as much after the blowout loss at Kentucky, but when Pearl called the Vols out, the Vols responded with three straight big wins to both get them in the tournament and secure the SEC East Championship.

And there were frustrating issues yesterday:  the Vols were the worst three point shooting team in the field, yet they fired away 33 times from beyond the arc, making 11 for just above their season average of 30%.  When Pearl was asked about this in the postgame, he mentioned that Wayne Chism was only 1 for 5 from two, Scotty Hopston 1 for 3 from two, and that Bobby Maze didn't even attempt a two point shot.  I get the idea that if your kids aren't shooting well from two, maybe it's more okay for them to shoot from three. 

What I don't get is why this team isn't shooting well from two - if Chism wants to play in the NBA, he needs a post-up move and more authority at the rim.  If Scotty Hopson is going to continue to mature, he has to get to the rim with the same authority with greater consistency.  And Bobby Maze needs to finish at the hole sometimes too instead of always kicking it back out.  That's coaching. 

And hopefully, all of these kids will be back next year, and Pearl and the staff can do a better job of coaching that up.

After yesterday's loss, Gregg Doyel wrote a story that I find myself agreeing with more often than not (though I refute the notion that there's as much lack of caring going on with this team as Doyel is describing here).  It's a very good look from an outside perspective at the Vols, describing some of those differences between this team and Pearl's first three, and then suggesting that perhaps Tennessee is a victim of her own success.

So yeah, there were issues.  Yes, we were inconsistent and the change in identity we struggled to deal with at times.  And yeah, we should've won more of these close games.

Every year ends this way unless you win it all.  That makes regular season accomplishments more important in hindsight, because it gives you something to look back on, something tangible to hold up when your season ends the same way as 99.4% of the rest of college basketball.

Making the tournament is always the primary goal, and the Vols did that.  They also captured the SEC Eastern Division title - their third in four years under Pearl - so yes, this team did win a championship.  There are reasons to be disappointed, but there was also plenty of good with this team. 

To me, if you win the division and you make the tournament at Tennessee right now, that's a good season.  It certainly was frustrating at times along the way, and it ended in disappointing fashion the way it always will in March until we're cutting down nets.  But I still look at this as a good year, even if it could have been better.

Some of us disagree.

Which is fine.  You're entitled to your opinion.  The anonymity of the internet continues to allow Johnny Majors' Legions of the Miserable to be out in full force on the GoVols and VolQuest message boards, which is nothing new.  And frankly, anyone there or anywhere else who uses the words "Bruce Pearl" and "fired" in the same sentence has lost the right to have an intelligent basketball conversation.

We've also discussed here before and elsewhere the attendance figures at Thompson-Boling Arena this season, the perplexing way that Gonzaga was the highest attended home game, followed by Memphis (which makes sense), followed by a string of mid-major opponents in November and December when the Vols were ranked.  When Tennessee was down or out of the polls but playing their biggest SEC games, several thousand students and season ticket holders simply stopped coming.

The same lack of hunger that Doyel used to describe the team, I would certainly apply to a significant percentage of the fanbase this season.  Students who came to campus in 2006 or later have no idea what it's like to cheer for a team that doesn't make the tournament.  They think they're entitled to March, the poll and winning championships...and this year when the team came up short on just one of those three things, a large percentage of them found something better to do.  Mike Hamilton is watching.

For all fans, I'm sure the new has worn off.  The surge of emotion in Pearl's first three seasons climaxed when the team reached #1 in the polls.  When you do that in only three years, it makes it impossible to keep up with your own expectations, because where else do you go from #1?

I'm not worried that general idiocy from a percentage of the fanbase is going to lead to general unrest, and that Pearl is going to be run out of town.  Not at all.

What I am worried about is when Pearl sees the attendance figures and hears the noise, witnesses the lack of appreciation and sense of entitlement from the fanbase that he himself doesn't carry...and then doesn't have to remember back very far to see an example of a coach on this campus winning a division title one year and getting fired the next...

I don't think Tennessee is going to get rid of Bruce Pearl.  I'm terrified that Bruce Pearl is going to continue to draw interest from dozens of other teams, collegiate and professional...and one of these days, he's going to take a long look around this program, and then he's going to say yes.

I wouldn't even mention the GoVols/VolQuest traffic and the weight of the stupidity that exists there...if Pearl hadn't, at three different times in the last month, mentioned that he was getting tired of defending this team.  Going as far to say that if winning the division wasn't enough at Tennessee, maybe he was in the wrong place.

Yes, you demand accountability from your coach and your program.  That's why we outlined the issues wrong with this team up above, and talked about how Pearl can address them.  That's why Jerry Green was unemployed after four years of unprecedented success at this university.  But I wonder how Green's scenario looks to Pearl today?

What you don't do is label the Eastern Division title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament as a disappointment.  Because Tennessee fans haven't earned that right.

We're not Kentucky.  We're not Duke.  And if you've only been following this program under Pearl, you need more history in your life. 

Tennessee is 13-18 all time in the NCAA Tournament.  In four years, Bruce Pearl has more tournament wins and as many appearances as anyone to coach at Tennessee, ever.  He's won 98 games in four years.  No coach at Tennessee has ever done that.

He's won three division titles, never been done here before.  He won an outright SEC Championship, which hadn't been done here in decades.  Got the Vols to #1 in the poll, never been done.

And it's not just the wins.

Pearl paints his chest.  He gets featured in Sports Illustrated.  He's the featured guest on Pardon The Interruption the day before the tournament starts, in a year where Tennessee is a 9 seed.  You cannot put a price tag on any of this.

Right now, Bruce Pearl is Tennessee Basketball.

And I hope with everything I have that this is just the beginning.

Pearl has now created the right to be disappointed if we don't make the tournament.  He has done that.

But as an entire twisted and unrealistic are our expectations overall?

Two years ago in football, the Vols won the SEC East Championship and went to Atlanta.  And a percentage of the fanbase called that disappointing.  I said it then and I'll say it now - if you couldn't enjoy that, you have serious issues and you need to seek help.  If we build up these expectations for ourselves so high in any sport, and continue to think that we're entitled to greatness that, in basketball, we haven't're going to be continually disappointed, and you're not going to enjoy anything short of a National Championship.  Right now many of these same people are sunshine and rainbows in love with Lane Kiffin, because he hasn't lost yet.

He will.

But he's going to win some too.  And hopefully, we'll appreciate the balance with realistic expectations.  I feel like we've all lost our perspective at a university where even Pat Summitt is getting heat this year.

So I worry that Bruce Pearl is going to survey the landscape...and then he's going to start listening longer and harder to other offers. 

I especially worry that in every postgame interview he did yesterday, never once did he mention the words "next year".

I really hope that's my paranoid delusion.  Either way, Tennessee fans need to open their eyes.  We'll always have optimists and pessimists.  What we need are more realists.  Yes, we hold our coaches, players and program accountable.  But we need to be held accountable too.

We live with a sense of entitlement that we haven't earned, with a coach lacking the appreciation that he has earned.

This was a good year for Tennessee Basketball.  We made the tournament for the fourth straight year, and won a championship.  Right now, that's a good year at this university.  We need to see, know and live that.

And that needs to carry over with greater appreciation for our head coach, who shouldn't even have to be defended...and who I hope stays in Knoxville for a long, long time.