It's fair to say that Bruce Pearl is the best coach Tennessee's seen in the last quarter-century. This isn't an argument for Bruce Pearl, but it is an argument for the idea of having a higher standard than what we've seen over the last three years. Let's break it down by section.
The Unrequited Back-In (or, How I Learned to Need the 8-1 Finish)
Okay, so I get the idea of NIT berths being something that doesn't look like the end of the world. However, let's talk missed opportunities. Hunter fortunately did my work for this year, so I'll graciously link to it here. With that being said, stop me if you see a theme:
- 2011-12: open 2-2 with close losses to Memphis and Duke, lose at Oakland, at home to Austin Peay, on the road against College of Charleston, go 5-1 with another loss to Memphis (but beat Florida), then go 2-5 in SEC play before closing at an 8-1 clip then failing to do anything in the SEC Tournament (bounced by Ole Miss)
- 2012-13: open 4-3 with close losses to Georgetown and Virginia (let's not talk about those offensive showings), go 4-1 with another loss to Memphis, open 1-4 in SEC play, float at 3-3 after that (including a home loss to Georgia), then close on a 9-1 clip (beating Florida) followed by failing to do anything in the SEC Tournament (beat Mississippi State, lose to Alabama)
- 2013-14: open 3-2 with a loss to UTEP, go 6-2 the rest of the non-conference way (beating Virginia and Xavier but losing to NC State and Xavier), then spend SEC play alternating wins with losses save a two-game win streak against Ole Miss and Alabama, setting up a potential 8-1 close if Tennessee wins out. No word yet on how the SEC Tournament will go.
One year? Sure. Two years? Weird coincidence. Three years? We got a pattern on our hands, and optically it's easier to just not be good and set the NIT as a goal then to spend the better part of two months frantically refreshing Bubble Watch to see where Tennessee's chances stood. All credit to ESPN, though: they got rid of it this year so we don't have to do that.
Butts in Seats (or Cash Rules Everything I Do)
- Wade Houston's average attendance: 15,697 (72.4% capacity)
- Kevin O'Neill's average attendance: 14,518 (66.9% capacity)
- Jerry Green's average attendance: 15,562 (71.8% capacity)
- Buzz Peterson's average attendance: 13,403 (61.8% capacity)
- Bruce Pearl's average attendance: 19,354 (89.3% capacity)
- Cuonzo Martin's average attendance: 16,685 (77.0% capacity)
Follow the Recruiting
You know how when we were building a case against Derek Dooley we pointed to recruiting as a problem? This might be related:
- Recruiting rankings under Bruce Pearl (from 2005-06 to 2010-11, in order): >25, 6, >25, 7, >25, 9
- Recruiting rankings under Cuonzo Martin (2011-12 to 2013-14): 46, 43, 36
- Two teams have placed every class in the Rivals Top 30 since 2011-12: Kentucky (duh) and Florida.
- Five additional teams have placed two classes or more in the Rivals Top 30 since 2011-12: LSU, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, and Vanderbilt.
- Four other teams have placed just one class in the Rivals Top 30 since 2011-12: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Georgia.
Kind of makes sense why Tennessee's been struggling in SEC play now, no?
Okay, so what?
If Tennessee's destined for a slow slide back to the pre-Pearl, vaguely-NCAA Tournament-ish days, well, okay. However: we've seen what it's like to be good and be consistently good, and the rest of the SEC is at worst catching up to where Tennessee's been. The longer this lasts, the harder it'll be to come back.
I don't know if Bruce Pearl is the answer, but I'm pretty sure that Tennessee doesn't want to be a middle-of-the-pack SEC team. It's possible to win at a NCAA tournament level on a regular basis at Tennessee - Pearl proved that. He doesn't need to be the guy who proves it again, but at this point there's a growing body of evidence it won't be Cuonzo Martin who proves that, either.