"Pay the price! Deserve victory!''
Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl commanded his players in midseason fashion Monday, running them through a merciless, full-court drill known as "Oklahoma'' after two intense hours of work.
A few hours earlier at his weekly press luncheon Pearl concluded he's "never played this slow'' with any of his previous teams at Southern Indiana nor Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
And certainly not Tennessee, which plays host to LSU (15-4, 3-1 SEC) at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: WVLT).
Pearl's frantic "controlled chaos'' press produced turnovers galore and led to a fast-breaking, high-flying style that led the SEC in scoring each of the previous three seasons and kept fans on the edge of their seats.
The Vols (12-6, 3-1) still lead the SEC in scoring with 81.2 points per game, but over the past four games they're averaging 70.5 and pressing less with each outing.
"We weren't getting back on defense,'' UT junior captain Tyler Smith said. "We understand where Coach is coming from; it's about victories. You just look at his record, and you know he knows what he's doing.''
But Pearl's the first to admit he's still in the process of fine-tuning a team with five new players in its 10-man rotation.
"I've never played this slow, but I've never had a team that was as big and couldn't get out and extend defensively,'' Pearl said. "While we've found a remedy defensively, it's hurt our offense.''
Redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum, who leads the team with 29 made 3-pointers this season, said it's an adjustment.
"We're a different team this year, made up with bigger wings,'' said the 6-foot-6 Tatum, who shares the shooting guard position with 6-7 Scotty Hopson. "In the half-court we have to be more precise to get open, and cut with a purpose.''
The past three seasons, UT often streaked past opponents, some not as quick, others worn down by the Vols' full-court defense.
"One of the things that has hurt our offense is the way we're defending; we've slowed the offense,'' said Pearl, alluding to the lack of full-court pressure and extended defensive sets. "There's fewer transition opportunities and fewer possessions.''
And there have been considerably fewer made 3-pointers: UT is in the middle of the SEC pack in made 3-pointers (sixth, 6.2 per game) and rank 11th in 3-point field-goal percentage (.300).
"Offensively, as far as our shots, it's those guys hunting their shots,'' Pearl said. "It's confidence to come off of down screens and handoffs and play calls.
"The thing that has been the most difficult is to continue to have to orchestrate the offense, to get the guys shots rather than trusting our continuities.''
Pearl also points to point guard play, noting that "the one area that we're just not getting any productivity is the penetrate and pitch; C.J. Watson was so good at that, and Ramar (Smith) could go by you anytime.''
The team's relative inexperience is a factor in that area as well, as Bobby Maze is still making the transition from junior college and junior Josh Tabb finds himself at the point for the first time in his collegiate career.
Regardless, Smith trusts Pearl will lead the team in the right direction, even if it has been quite literally at a slower pace.
"It is a lot different this year,'' Smith said. "We're still learning, and we know it will take time.
"But now that we've found our identity on defense, the offense will come.''