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The Clock is Ticking

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure:  I was at a Christmas party tonight and didn't see the game. I can't comment on the specifics of why tonight went wrong, but I'm afraid we're all quite familiar at this point with the general malaise of this basketball team during the months of November and December.

I do know how it felt to turn on the radio between stops and hear we were down 30-16, at home. And I know how unfortunately unsurprising it was to check my phone in the second half and see us getting back closer but never close enough.  So goes an eventual 65-58 loss with details such as 3 of 24 from the three point line and the school record for blocks allowed (12) in our building.

I can't talk about tonight, but the problem isn't just tonight, and everyone knows it.  The question is less, "Why did we lose to NC State?" and more, "Why does this team lose to so many NC States?"  (No offense to the Wolfpack, who whipped us tonight clearly).

Here's the thing: you can't ask us to be patient.  I mean, you can, but we won't listen. We will, at this point, either laugh or get even angrier.  The answer depends on whether or not you've already given up on this team, making anger the preferable choice because at least anger is still emotional investment.

It's a choice fewer are making already.  I don't know what the actual attendance was tonight, but they announced 14,831.  In two December home games this year the Vols average 14,218, a number that will likely drop after tonight's outcome and a date with Morehead State two days before Christmas.  Here are the December home averages for Tennessee basketball the last four years:

  • December 2013:  14,218
  • December 2012:  15,830
  • December 2011:  15,910
  • December 2010:  17,736
That's a 20% decrease in attendance during the month of December from Pearl's last year to Cuonzo's third year.  That's following a two year decrease in full season attendance of 12%.  Wins and losses talk, but so do Coke and popcorn.  Ask Buzz Peterson, in an analogy we may find far, far too comfortable.

You can't ask us to be patient.  Not with most of the same team that's been on the floor for the last three seasons including the first third of this one.  Cuonzo's Vols graduated the fifth-leading scorer off of his first team (Cameron Tatum) and the fifth and sixth-leading scorers off of his second team (Kenny Hall and Skyler McBee).  We booted Trae Golden but replaced him with Antonio Barton.  We've signed a pair of five-stars.  Patience is a non-starter, and so are the results.

Tennessee went 8-1 down the stretch in 2012, 8-1 down the stretch in 2013.  But when you start 10-12 and 11-10 and end via Friday flame out in the SEC Tournament, those finishes don't matter.  They almost do...but then they don't.

Here's something else that doesn't matter as much as we hoped it would: all those wins that felt so good down the stretch the last two years?  Of those 16 late season wins, only four came against eventual NCAA Tournament teams.  The SEC quite simply hasn't been very good.  This year there are few guarantees the Vols will get more than a couple shots against tournament teams in league play, let alone win some of them.  This team could finish 21-10 and beat no one who dances.  And in the modern SEC, we won't dance either.

You can't ask us to be patient not just because there was no reason for patience with a roster returning three former All-SEC players and one of the nation's top recruits.  You also can't ask us to be patient because of football.  That's not fair, it's life.

A Tennessee fanbase that's been through a special kind of fall since we won the SEC East and made the Elite Eight in a five month November-March span in 2007-08 used all of its patience on Derek Dooley.  Derek Dooley should have nothing to do with Cuonzo Martin, but he has everything to do with the grace fans are likely to give at the moment.  Dooley's year three was supposed to be the payoff after an unplanned restart in year one and the loss of our best player in year two.  To a man, we'll tell you that year three team had the talent; four of its pass catchers are making big plays as rookies on Sundays right now.  They had the talent to make patience pay off.  But they didn't win, and at the end of the year their coach lost.

So here's Tennessee Basketball, two years removed from an unplanned restart and one year removed from the unexpected loss of Jeronne Maymon.  And we're 6-4 with wins over no one and losses to an RPI 100+ squad tonight and an RPI 200+ squad in the Bahamas.  Yet another early letdown has created the need for another unbelievable finish, and it's irrational to expect any basketball team in any conference to just finish 8-1 every time like it's no big deal.  Those 8-1 runs were indeed special during every second of them, right up until the moment we didn't hear our name called because we screwed it up just bad enough beforehand to miss out.  And now once again the Vols have played themselves into a hole where special is almost necessary, and even it might not be enough.

The margin of error for this season is vanishing, and with it the margin of error for its head coach.  Because alongside another potential missed NCAA Tournament is the evaporation of both the fanbase and the expectation Bruce Pearl's Vols built.

I'm a season ticket holder who's been to games under DeVoe, Houston, O'Neill, Green, Peterson, Pearl, and Martin.  And each of them, including Cuonzo, had their moments.  But the difference with Pearl was both sustained national success and the buy-in of the people.  Jerry Green won games but didn't capture the people.  Under Pearl, Tennessee Basketball became TENNESSEE BASKETBALL!

The hope was six years of ascension and some of the best facilities in America would be enough to continue forward without Pearl, done in by his own hand.

(And it will be Pearl who twists the knife now as well, a fairy tale return that I can't fathom actually happening, in part because I'm not sure the decision makers in Knoxville think it's worth the risk and the negative PR and in part because his show cause isn't actually up until August.  Would I want Bruce Pearl's return if Cuonzo fails?  Absolutely.  But I wanted Gruden too, and either way it reeks of him.  And we've all been through that enough already.)

And I still think it can be done.  Bruce Pearl isn't the only guy who can win here.  Maybe there's a conversation to be had here about what we pay our basketball coaches and how it needs to rise.  But if Cuonzo Martin is going to be that guy, the time isn't now, it was one month ago.  Yet here we are again, a team chasing its own potential too deep into the season.

And here's where Dooley and Buzz Peterson will come into play again:  these things don't happen in a vacuum.  You can't just say, "Let's give him four years (or five for Buzz), he needs another year," absent a conversation about the roster.  We all knew Dooley's chance was 2012 because 2013 was going to be somewhat of a rebuild anyway.  You want to talk about the benefit of cutting your losses and starting over, can you imagine if we'd gone 7-5 in 2012 and then decided to keep Dooley?  Buzzball Year Four, like this Cuonzo team, returned every major contributor from the previous season, an NIT flameout...and was somehow worse.  Buzz, like Cuonzo, appeared to be a super great human being that people genuinely liked.  But if Buzz couldn't win with this year's team, what made you think he'd win after most of the roster left?

This Tennessee team is going to lose Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, Antonio Barton, and almost certainly Jarnell Stokes.  Some nice pieces remain, but next year should be a down year.  It's okay, they happen, especially in college basketball.  But if Cuonzo can't get it done with this year's team, what at all have we seen that makes anyone think he'll get it done with next year's team?

And so here's one more line from the Dooley campaign to put this to bed:  I want what's best for Tennessee Basketball, and what's best for Tennessee Basketball right now is to win.  I want Cuonzo Martin to succeed right now because there's still a chance that he could, and frankly I still believe there's no reason he shouldn't with this team.  So either he and this team start winning, and I mean right now, and winning enough to compete for the SEC Championship and get on the dance floor...or they keep losing, and we take a long hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we like what we see.

It's entirely possible that gray areas went out the window in Knoxville with patience and Mike Hamilton.  Dave Hart doesn't seem to be a big fan.  The pressure has been on, but now it's turned way up.  It's win, or else.  How will Cuonzo Martin and these Vols respond?