We can beat #3 Pitt and #7 Villanova away from home...but only if we get out in front and stay there.
We can keep Belmont, Missouri State, and VCU at bay...but only if we get to shoot a bunch of free throws at the end.
What this team is yet to prove it can do is win a game in the last four minutes. Protect a lead? Sure. Finish a beatdown against a top ten team? Absolutely.
But twice this week, against Oakland and Charlotte, the Vols found themselves in a tight game in the final five minutes...and both times, the Vols have earned a big fat F.
First, let's talk about how we got there. This was a different game than anything the Vols have seen so far this year: the first half finished with UT up only 24-20, where silent whistles were negated by horrific shooting. The field goal percentages didn't get much better in the second half - the Vols finished the game at 34.9%. But here's the problem: Charlotte only shot 30.2%. And won.
Some of that can be attributed to the fact that the fouls did come back in the second half, where the Vols again put the opponent in the double bonus. And Charlotte will look at this game and say they won it at the free throw line, shooting 12 of 13 to their credit. The Vols, meanwhile, shot just 2 of 7 - a depressing 28.6% - despite dominating on the inside. You look at the box score, and free throws are the only stat that suggests a Charlotte victory. Tennessee outscored the Niners 38-14 in the paint, outrebounded them 38-31, and had 15 offensive rebounds to their 8.
And yet, the Vols were out of rhythm from the opening tip.
The last time a team trotted out a 2-3 zone against the Vols, Tennessee set the nets on fire against MTSU, hitting 11 of 24 from beyond the arc in a 30 point win. Tonight though, no one could hit anything to make Charlotte even consider playing something else. The Vols were 2 of 17 from the arc, and 0 for 12 until Skylar McBee hit one late. Scotty Hopson hit the other, but he was 1 for 6.
And yeah, let's talk about Scotty. Maybe you can squint your eyes really hard and see a silver lining here, that the primary story is a UT loss and not Hopson's usual inconsistency, which we all did a great job telling ourselves was gone forever after the Pitt performance. Hopson was 6 of 19 on the night, and while he did have a 7 point spurt in the final minutes which made him the Vols' leading scorer with 13, his overall performance (which included a late turnover) was more proof that we just can't count on him to be the guy we need him to be every night. When he is, the Vols can beat any team in the country. When he's not, we lose to Oakland and Charlotte.
And hey, Oakland is a pretty decent basketball team. This bunch tonight was not. Come March, this is a "bad loss" on the resume - a 4-6 team that really hadn't played anybody and just dismissed their best player two weeks ago. Remember when we beat Charlotte after losing our best player last year? Very funny.
Even with Hopson's struggles and the entire team having an off night (Tobias Harris was just 6 of 15, but he still had a 12-10 on the night), Tennessee should've won this game. After a Charlotte 3 gave them a 42-41 lead with 4:11 to play, Hopson hit his spurt to put the Vols up 48-42 with 2:33 to go. Here's how it went from there:
- Javarris Barnett 3, 48-45 Vols
- Scotty Hopson turnover
- Charlotte miss, offensive rebound, miss
- Vols fouled with :36 to play, fifth foul on Charlotte
- Charlotte forces a jump ball off the inbounds, possession Charlotte
- Melvin Goins foul, Charlotte hits two FTs, 48-47 Vols
- Vols fouled with :24 and :20 to play, sixth and seventh fouls on Charlotte
- Melvin Goins misses the front end of a one-and-one
- Phil Jones gets a layup in transition, 49-48 Charlotte
- Vols call timeout across halfcourt with 3.3 seconds left
- Tatum hits the backboard on a 35 footer
That inbounds play was a train wreck, especially for a team that typically excels at out-of-bounds stuff. Tatum inbounded to Brian Williams at the three point line, who's obviously no threat to do anything with it from there. Williams throws it right back to Tatum at around 35 feet. Tatum jacks a three that doesn't come close.
It was a desperation play you run with 1.3 seconds left, not 3.3. You're only down one. Go inside, get a whistle...or hey, maybe let one of your two best players have a crack at it?
As frustrating as that play was, the Vols put themselves in position to lose on every possession in the final two minutes. If it sounds familiar, it's because the same thing happened against Oakland three days ago. And if free throws were the culprit tonight, Melvin Goins missing the front end of a one-and-one was a fitting way to set ourselves up to lose.
One week ago, the Vols looked like college basketball's leading villain. But as we've seen this week, Tennessee is really their own worst enemy. We said we'd get tired of Bruce Pearl being the story, but that's a better conversation than talking about why this team lost both of these games.
At the start of the season, I expected losses like these while an odd mix of experience and youth learned to play together, when the two most talented players on the team are a freshman and Scotty Hopson and it takes time for them to figure out how to win, and the Vols would just learn and grow along the way. I expected a game like this against, say, VCU.
After Villanova and Pitt, however, we started expecting an entirely different set of things. And look, this team created those expectations for themselves. Don't tell me we're not the team that blew out Pitt six days ago, I saw it. But I've also seen a team that is looking around for Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince at the end of the game, and instead we're left with Scotty, a freshman, and a team that isn't really giving them chances to win the game anyway.
I expected this...but not on back to back nights. And not against Oakland at home, and a 4-6 Charlotte team on the road.
And if you think it's going to get any easier, you're new to this game. Any emotional lift the program might get from playing Lane Kiffin's employer will be negated by the presence of Kevin O'Neill, whose Trojans give up 62 points per game, beat Texas 73-56, and put what is probably the worst loss of Pearl's UT career on the Vols last year, 77-55. If you weren't following the Vols when O'Neill coached here, the guy lives and breathes defense and little else...and when he puts in the tape of tonight's performance and sees a team struggle so mightily against a 2-3 zone and a player who is so easily frustrated in Hopson? He'll have the Trojans ready to go. Three losses in a row is not, at all, out of the question, and if the Vols haven't learned humility yet, O'Neill will teach it to them.
What the Vols better learn is poise. It's one of Pearl's favorite words, and it's what his best teams displayed in the final minutes, home or away, regardless of the opponent. This will not be the last close game we play this season, and at this rate it won't be the last one we play against an inferior opponent.
The only way this team is going to learn how to win in the final minutes is to do it.