Consider, for a moment, what we've accomplished.
Two weeks ago the Vols went to Ole Miss and lost by 16. Then they went to Rupp Arena and lost by 19, in a game that produced an apology from Coach Pearl and an inference that these Vols played neither hard nor together. Pearl called them (and himself) out publicly.
Meanwhile, Tennessee was 16-10, 7-5 in SEC play and squarely on the bubble.
In response, first the Vols came home and outgunned a good Mississippi State team, 81-76. That started the healing, and the Vols found more medicine in their home away from home down in Gainesville. In beating Florida 79-75, Tennessee put themselves in position to still win the SEC East and move off the bubble and into the tournament.
Either of those would've been more than acceptable outcomes, but it wasn't just the losses that were frustrating Vol Nation earlier in the season, it was the overall performance. It wasn't just the what, it was the how and why.
So to expand on what Joel has already said, tonight at South Carolina with the East on the line, it wasn't just that the Vols won on the road, beat a likely NCAA Tournament team or even wrapped up the Eastern Division. It was the way they did it, flipping the switch to its fully on and upright position, and playing without question their best basketball of the season in an 86-70 win.
In these three wins, the Vols have averaged 82 points. In the five previous games, the Vols averaged 69.6 points and went 2-3 (with both wins coming at home). And it's not just the scoring burst that makes you want to believe, it's the consistency and moxie (to borrow words from both Joel and Hooper tonight):
One of the first points Pearl made in his postgame show tonight was the way that South Carolina started the game: nailing threes, setting a fast tempo, and creating a very entertaining first four minutes.
But at the initial television break, the score was tied 15-15. As hot as Carolina had started...the Vols matched it. As Pearl said: "We took South Carolina's best shot."
Carolina was inconsistent from there. The Vols were not.
Even when Carolina was only down 44-40 at halftime, they had no answer for a 27-10 Vol run in the second half that put the game away. The Vols frustrated them, forced them to take quick/bad shots and then allowed them no second opportunities on the glass. Carolina stopped scoring, while the Vols kept going right along.
So if the Vols keep going right along into next week, now comes the fun question: is there even better basketball out there to be played for this team?
Because tonight was pretty good.
Pearl has said it all year and throughout his Tennessee career: "We're at our best when everybody contributes."
That everybody starts with Tennessee's three best and most experienced contributors, and tonight was the best example yet of what the Vols can do when all three are on their A-game:
- Tyler Smith: 22 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 turnover
- Wayne Chism: 15 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks
- JP Prince: 20 points, 9 rebounds (5 offensive)
All three of Tennessee's finest have become complete enough players to contribute all over the floor and at both ends. The Vols outrebounded South Carolina 43-20. That's pretty sick, right there.
The "everybody contributes" idea has to work beyond those three guys, but when the Vols get what they got from Tyler, Wayne and JP, they really only need one other bump from someone else to push them into elite territory. Tonight it was Brian Williams, 6 points and 7 rebounds in 18 minutes. On other nights it has been Bobby Maze or Scotty Hopson. But when the Vols' best players are playing their best, and they get an additional contribution from someone else in the rotation, Tennessee is very tough to beat. And should the Vols, individually and collectively, be playing that best basketball now, at the end of the season...
Two weeks ago it was gloom, doom and the NIT. Tonight, for the first time this season, we can all use the word "lock" when describing Tennessee's NCAA Tournament fate. Even if they lose to Alabama and flame out on Friday in the SEC Tournament, the Vols are I-N.
Which means those games now become about improving seeding, and continuing to figure out exactly how far this team is capable of going (you know, aside from that whole "have never won the SEC Tournament or even played in the finals under the current 12-team format" thing). How well can we position ourselves in the bracket to give ourselves the best chance to survive and advance, which will quickly become all that this season is about?
But aside from the basketball that's left to be played, consider the accomplishment of locking up a third Eastern Division title in four years. Bruce Pearl has now orchestrated the greatest four year run of basketball in Tennessee's 100 year history. Like most records in SEC history, we have to exclude Kentucky from this statement...but outside the Cats, no other program besides the Nolan Richardson Arkansas squads of the mid-90s has accomplished that same feat.
The voices of displeasure with Pearl two weeks ago now have both historical and present reasons to move in the other direction. His efforts with this team in the last two weeks have been just as impressive as his work with the previous three squads, and continue to grow trust in his system and his methods. More than just the design of the halfcourt offense or the press...Pearl has managed his players very, very well in the last two weeks. The staff continues to gameplan well - tonight using dribble penetration and then well-timed bounce passes to open men inside when Carolina defenders were all too eager to look for a charge, something Pearl specifically mentioned implementing in practice yesterday in the postgame. But they've also nutured growth in these players, from Scotty Hopson to Tyler Smith. Pearl found the right buttons to push, and he's pushed them at the best possible time of the season.
Congrats to South Carolina for a great season; the Cocks will finish second in the East, have a first round bye secured, and should feel much safer about their NCAA Tournament fate if they handle Georgia on Saturday. More and more people have picked up on the comparison between Darrin Horn's first season in Columbia and Bruce Pearl's first in Knoxville in the last couple of days, and the resurrection Carolina Basketball has enjoyed this season is certainly noteworthy.
But tonight, Tennessee proved they were a step ahead of that story, and were clearly, definitively, and thankfully the best team on the floor. Pearl's first squad played gutsy to the finish and stole the Eastern Division title. Horn's first squad played gutsy to this point...but at the finish line, ran into a better team tonight.
So Tennessee goes to the end of the regular season with a world of confidence, another division title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament awaiting them. They've been young and they've been frustrating more than we wanted at times this season. But right now, they're showing all the signs of what we hoped they could eventually grow into. How far can that growth take them?
Tonight, the Vols earned the right to find out.
(Highlights & Postgame Extra from ESPN)