Strange: A game and season of almosts

DAYTON, Ohio — A college basketball season is a six-month investment. You start in October and hit the end somewhere in March.

Unless you win it all and cut down the nets in some dome while they play “One Shining Moment,” the end comes hard.

It came especially hard for Tennessee on Friday, in the form of a 77-75 loss to Oklahoma State in a first-round NCAA tournament game.

And it came suddenly, too.

Until Tyler Smith’s 3-point shot hit the rim and bounced high, scraping the top of the backboard as the horn sounded, the Vols thought they were still playing on.

“When Tyler hit that ‘and-one’ I just knew we had that game won,’’ said UT guard Bobby Maze.

He referred to Smith’s basket and free throw with 24 seconds left, a sequence that would have been a worthy game-winner, putting the Vols up 75-74.

But Oklahoma State had time to answer with a three-point play of its own, courtesy of guard Byron Eaton.

So with 7.2 seconds to play, Tennessee had to conjure up another game-winning play. That was asking too much.

Smith’s last try was close but no cigar, a metaphor of sorts for this season.

An upset of Memphis in January slipped away at the end. Victory at Auburn escaped in a frantic finish.

An outright SEC Eastern Division champion slithered away on a last-second Alabama basket.

An SEC tournament championship died on a missed 3-pointer.

And Friday, another missed 3-pointer meant a one-and-done in the NCAA tournament for the first time in coach Bruce Pearl’s four seasons.

Just like that, it was over. The shot goes in, you come back on Sunday. It doesn’t go in, you get on the bus and go home.

As the finality hit, Smith slumped onto the bench, then walked off the court with his jersey pulled up over his face.

Pearl sought out official Mike Sanzere to make an adamant point that he thought an Oklahoma State foul could have been called on the screen to get Smith free for the shot.

This is the way hard endings look. No “One Shining Moment’’ this day.

“We’ll probably walk away from this campaign and think we left a little bit on the table,’’ Pearl said a little later, before the Vols vacated University of Dayton Arena.

The Vols won 21 games. That’s 10 fewer than last year’s school-record effort but a number Tennessee would take most years. Especially most pre-Pearl years.

“I did not get this team to play as well as it was capable of playing with enough consistency,’’ Pearl said

He’s right. This was Pearl’s most challenging season of his four at UT. There were the players gone from last year’s club. There were issues that nagged all season long and those issues were evident Friday.

The Vols ranked last of the 65-team tournament field on 3-point shooting percentage – and yet 33 of their 56 attempts against Oklahoma State were behind the arc. They made 11.

Their inability to defend penetrating guards rose up to bite them one last time. Oklahoma State shot 56.6 percent from the field. Eaton, the Cowboys’ hero, was 70 percent (7-of-10).

Maybe this game was lost when the Vols were downgraded to a No. 9 seed on Selection Sunday. The 8-9 game is, by definition, supposed to be a nail-biter.

Nail-biters have been another of UT’s issues. Since Maze’s game-winner at Arkansas on Feb. 4, the Vols are 0-4 in games decided by three or fewer points.

And here’s the if-and-maybe icing on the coulda-shoulda cake Friday:

No. 1 seed Pittsburgh hardly looked invincible in a 72-62 win over East Tennessee State in the other game here. Despite all of UT’s ups and downs over the past six months, maybe a third consecutive Sweet 16 wasn’t that far out of reach after all.

But for Tennessee, it’s over. Over too soon to suit anybody.

“I want ’em to know how close we were to being a really good team, to being a great team,’’ Pearl said. “At times we showed it.’’

It’s not the “great” part we’ll remember about this team, it’s the “close” part.

Right up until the end.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews or 865-342-6276.

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Comments » 64

volcycle writes:

No surprises here. This reflects the year of this team. Go Vols! See you in the fall!

miatatom writes:

"The Vols ranked last of the 65-team tournament field on 3-point shooting percentage – and yet 33 of their 56 attempts against Oklahoma State were behind the arc. They made 11."

That about says it all. Somewhere along the way, this team and coach should have realized that we aren't the Vols of 07-08. Poor shot selection, lack of focus, etc.

I'm still with you CBP, I'm just disappointed that we never seemed to improve during the season. I hope 09-10 is better.

utkjoe29 writes:

trash away..this team made me ill.. it was never the competetition.. Pearl needs to look at their game plan and obvious lack of guard play! Prince you need to leave and play in Europe you will never be Tayshaun and you will never be a "team" player.. so leave now and free up the schooly for a shooter.. please leave now!

calvolfromkingsport writes:

Just a true point guard away.

utclassof1992 writes:

This article was spot on. BP ought to bust their butts in the first fall practice, and if they dont want it, start yanking schollys. "Pigged out on pancakes". That was priceless. Keep plugging, Bruce. This was a rebuilding year.

utkjoe29 writes:

true true.. a point guard wouldve been amazing.. can you imagine an eaton type on this team.. damn.. go vols!

huntined#565710 writes:

A lot of up's and a lot of downs this year. But overall it has been fun to watch tham most of the time and that says a lot because a few years ago we were sucking hind tit. Just got to hope they all return and a great POINT shows up.

secondcreek writes:

Is the issue Pearl's recruiting? Seems like Pearl had his most success with Buzz Peterson's recruits and now they have moved on for the most part.

Volman61 writes:

in response to secondcreek:

Is the issue Pearl's recruiting? Seems like Pearl had his most success with Buzz Peterson's recruits and now they have moved on for the most part.

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

tractoronthepole writes:

Its about desire and hunger. You can't tell me we can't press because we are not fast enough. We aren't hungry enough to work that hard. Was Dane Bradshaw, Howell, and Chris Lofton fast? No. Pearl never got a handle on the chemistry of this team, it had no chemistry. We have a lot of good individuals.

volinky writes:

Wow - everyone needs to read this...espicially CBP. I love him and all he has done and believe he can adjust to success. But, we must make some adjustments!

LifetimeVolFan98 writes:

in response to utkjoe29:

trash away..this team made me ill.. it was never the competetition.. Pearl needs to look at their game plan and obvious lack of guard play! Prince you need to leave and play in Europe you will never be Tayshaun and you will never be a "team" player.. so leave now and free up the schooly for a shooter.. please leave now!

I understand they are recruiting up to 4 different PGs and Gs that are "real" scorers. Hopson will be much improved next year. Maze should be better. West will be avaiable and we get 1 or 2 more guards, Prince rides the pine. Especially if Smith and Chism both return.

TooLegit2Quit writes:

Overall, this season was a disappointment and this team underperformed a bit in my opinion. But I thank the team for the season, they did very well capturing the SEC East and being 1 of 3 teams from the SEC to make the tournament. I'll definitely be looking forward to next season, hopefully we are ready to go and do some serious damage. I'm also looking forward to seeing what Tyler decides.

To those true Vol fans that aren't whining, insulting college players, and/or insulting a coaching staff that has given us four good years, see you next year. Go Vols!

Good luck to Oklahoma State as well, I'll be pulling for them against Pittsburgh. That Eaton kid is a baller as well.

wildmed writes:

A forgettable season played out by a mediocre team, this bunch will not long be remembered. I don't think Coach Pearl ever quit working this group as hard as he could, trying to coax superlative basketball out of them, but too many deficiencies and no go-to player who could take charge at the end of the game with a win in the balance spelled doom. We need some recruiting magic...

Botetourtvol writes:

in response to volinky:

Wow - everyone needs to read this...espicially CBP. I love him and all he has done and believe he can adjust to success. But, we must make some adjustments!

Thanks for the link volinky - being at the game gives you a MUCH better perspective of the intensity of the players - the only game that I attended this year was at Disney World (vs Gonzaga) - just happened to be there on vacation - after reading this article and reflecting on that game - the columnist seems to have an accurate perspective on this team - CBP won't get content (I hope) - he seems to coach hard - we need next year's team to learn from this.

wildmed writes:

Doyel of CBSSports.com has a great take on the Vols' season, a very entertaining and enlightening story.

OrangeRush writes:

Season ticket holder, attended every home game, love CBP regardless of how the team played. It was just one of those years, but it could have been worse. Look at KY's or FL's performance.

So, to the Big Orange hoopsters I say this: shake it off, work hard during the off season and come back with a vengeance when the season cranks back up later this year.

Go Vols!

yabadabadoo1026 writes:

in response to Volman61:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

you're sick

MrBamSeydu writes:

Here is a great article from Gregg Doyel at CBS on Tennessee's basketball team this year. Just posted it today after the Oklahama State loss and, I must say, it is exaaaactly what I was thinking:

http://www.cbssports.com/collegebaske...

MrBamSeydu writes:

Oops, I see someone already posted that article oh well.

I guess I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Go Vols. I think we needed to lose. Maybe we'll be more hungry next year and not so smug.

hueypilot writes:

Down the stretch people zoned Tennessee with great effectiveness. Seemed reluctant to flash the man in the middle and I'm not just parroting TV talking heads, that's how you beat a zone, that or shoot over it. Shooting over it takes less effort but if Travis Ford's plan was to make us beat them with the three, and given our poor shooting percentage from the arc, you know it was, then it worked to perfection. I think Doyel's article was a little harsh, but a lot of truth there. We sure didn't scrap and hustle in this game like we are capable. Oh well, we are after all a football school. Uh we were a football school. We're primarly a girls basketball school........on second thought forget the other sports just now.

Vol23304 writes:

Great game plan by Travis Ford tonight.
We cannot or do not want to play D .We cannot defend the pick and roll. I think Doyel was right on point. We have not played D with passion that has been BP's trademark.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

Bottom line is this wasn't a very good shooting team; We missed a record number of shots from point blank range and all those 10 to 15 footers by Tyler that were automatic last year just didn't fall..Take back those 5 or 6 games he went 4 for 12 from the floor and that adds up to 5 more wins and proably a 4 or 5 seed in the big dance.

rockitwithrespect writes:

theres more responses to this link than the article we're commenting on.

doubledeuce22Q writes:

In no way am I trying to start an "oust Pearl" movement, because I feel like he can be a good coach...however...we can complain about shooting so many 3's while we are the worst in the field...not hustling or caring enough about defense to be able to press...attitudes, etc., etc. The truth is that all of this is a direct reflection of coaching. Would a team coached by coach K, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, or Bill Self even be in the discussion on such issues as these? Would a team coached by any of these men run down the floor with 8 seconds left in a tourney game and jack up a three pointer by a forward who has one of the worst 3 percentages on the team? It seems that we have alot of arrogance and very little pride. It starts from the top. Bruce is getting a little too comfortable on Rocky Top. He needs to coach these kids, and not let them do as they please. It's a shame that t comes now, but it is gut check time for Bruce.

kbart4033#247331 writes:

The CBS Sportsline article is spot-on! When the scouting report says you have an inside advantage and your most
talented inside player throws up 9 3-pointers, you are in
big, big trouble...was that coaching or was that attitude?
I think Bruce needs to trash the "rotation" and give minutes
to the guys who buy into the gameplan--on both ends of the floor--and who play "hungry" every possession. Vols "settled"
for the three in most of their losses; never figured out how
to defend the pick-and-roll (hint: you have to smother
the ball!); and broke the modern-day record for most wasted,
fundamental-less fastbreaks. On paper, next year--unfortunately--looks like more of the same!

CoverOrange writes:

I was there today. What I saw was a disciplined OSU team that hustled back on defense every time never allowing even to think about transition points. I saw a 5-11 kid get a rebound over a 6-7 player. I saw what should have been a dominate big man refusing to muscle up inside. I saw hands of stone put up shot after shot from two feet away and not even come close. I saw two airballs!

I saw some nice legs on one OSU cheerleader. but I digress.

utvol2485 writes:

I try not to get down on our teams because those kids have more talent than I'll ever dream of having and they also dedicate a helluva a lot of time to their sports. They represent the University of Tennessee and I'm very proud of them and our coaches.

With all that being said, I think the CBS article was 100% correct. Some of our guys think they are better than they really are. It seems to me that they feel a sense of entitlement to something, which I really don't understand. I don't know where the passion for the game, the hustle, and the intensity went this year, but I hope we can find it before next season.

I don't want to be overly critical of our guys and CBP, so I'll just stop right now.

Here's hoping for a healthy, productive offseason and a better season next year.

GO VOLS!!!

wyomingvol writes:

Under achievers.

This team was the polar opposite of BP's first 3 teams..

Not an insult, just my opinion.

Where is Dane "Power Forward" Bradshaw when you need him??

If we get a point guard, a big man, and a team without a 'we have already won' attitude, we should be much better next year..

Just don't expect to face a team as sorry as MS State in the conference finals ever again...

HUGE MISSED OPPORTUNITY...

GO VOLS. I will look forward to next year, and no longer at what could of been.

kbart4033#247331 writes:

I am a big BP fan, but I am most concerned about his ability
to evaluate talent for the system he loves to run. It appears
he has gone for "name" players with national reputations and elected to not pursue area guys with fewer "stars" next
to their resumes, but maybe with the "hunger" of Lofton,
Bradshaw, J.Smith, etc. Examples: Clemson's Terrance Oglesby
(13.6 ppg-40.0 3ptFGs) of Cleveland, TN.; Ole Miss' Terrico White(12.8 ppg-39.0 3ptFGs) of Memphis, TN.; Mississippi
State's Barry Stewart (14.0 ppg-39 3ptFGs) of Shelbyville
were lightly-recruited by Bruce, who wasted scholarships
on Ramar (MIA in Europe), Duke (MIA in Division II),
Marques Johnson (3 schools in 3 years) and the kid from
Indiana who got booted last year after yet another drug
incident (he fit in well with Ramar and Duke!). I will take
"hunger" over "stars" every time! That's my opinion-ought to
be Bruce's!

Vol_alumni08 writes:

Please Tyler and Wayne don’t let this be the last game that I’ll have to remember you all by. Come back and learn how to shoot free throws!

WeLoveTennesseeVols writes:

in response to volcycle:

No surprises here. This reflects the year of this team. Go Vols! See you in the fall!

Yes, and as far as my feelings go I fully agree with this writer's words in this article. Just to say "I feel your pain" was not enough!

mp28002 writes:

The biggest problem with this team is their inability to play tough defense. Not sure why they stay in a man to man at the end of the game when the pick and roll is so easily executed time after time. Allowing someone to drive with the game on the line is extremely poor execution. Sometime you have to try something different.

titansforever writes:

In college one can not underestimate the effect a senior guard has on the game. Take Lofton and Jajuan last year and the kid from OSU yesterday. This year's juniors will be better next year if they will commit to each other and play like a team. The commitment to each other is the missing ingredient.

bluetiger writes:

I was pulling for the Vols yesterday and thought they had it won.

Please ignore Voljokes. I promise not all Memphis fans are that classless.

I look for a good game next year at the Fedex Forum with two great teams.

PennVol writes:

I think Pearl is in a new era of his career. Leading a big time program that is expected to win (vs. building a program). He needs to learn how to motivate the blue chippers or keep recruiting the 2nd tier kids who actually WANT to work hard and play at this level. I fully support Pearl and believe he can make the right adjustments, it just seems like this season got away from him before he knew how to make them. Unfortunately, many of his best players seem to be the laziest on the floor. To be a Bruce Pearl team, they each should lead by example or sit on the bench.

bloodrunsorange writes:

He pretty much nails it!

BoydsCreekBoy writes:

Thanks for the link, and AMEN.

richvol writes:

in response to kbart4033#247331:

The CBS Sportsline article is spot-on! When the scouting report says you have an inside advantage and your most
talented inside player throws up 9 3-pointers, you are in
big, big trouble...was that coaching or was that attitude?
I think Bruce needs to trash the "rotation" and give minutes
to the guys who buy into the gameplan--on both ends of the floor--and who play "hungry" every possession. Vols "settled"
for the three in most of their losses; never figured out how
to defend the pick-and-roll (hint: you have to smother
the ball!); and broke the modern-day record for most wasted,
fundamental-less fastbreaks. On paper, next year--unfortunately--looks like more of the same!

Pearl and his players need to do a lot of soul searching this offseason. Coach is the only one who can control who gives the proper effort and plays smart. Sadly he just did not get it done this year as he allowed the inmates to run the asylum.

Negedu came in for about four minutes and scored 6 points and grabbed two rebounds...then he was yanked. This kid plays as hard as anyone I ever saw yet the staff allows weak effort from other players to go unchallenged.

Someone else questioned if Coach K,Coach Williams or Coach Pitino would allow this lack of passion by his players yet still allow them to play...no way no how.

Did anyone else hear the announcers talking about how certain UT players were waiving to their families in the stands while they were in the game? Typical.

richvol writes:

in response to vol1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Ramar performed so poorly that we had to play Prince in the NCAA last year. He did not score or run the team like a good point should.

BoydsCreekBoy writes:

Thank you for the link and AMEN.

TommyJack writes:

I like Bruce. I hope he's here for awhile. But I think he let this year's team coach him.

jhayes0926#638474 writes:

in response to calvolfromkingsport:

Just a true point guard away.

I respectfully disagree with this. I think there are more problems than many realize.

There is very little fire in these guys. Read the cbs article referenced above, I agree totally with that writer. These players don't want to exert themselves. Chism taking 9 threes is ridiculous. We don't know what good defense is. I hope Coach goes back to his old ways and plays frenzied level of play like in the old days. If the players don't want to exert themselves, bench them

TommyJack writes:

Rucker actually goes into locker-room and talks to players.....http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/20...

adamsck#591720 writes:

All the belly-aching in these threads makes me sick. 5 years ago we would have given our first born for an "off" year to have included an 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and 20+ wins. Clearly this wasn't Pearl's best year. Lost a point guard, Tyler never really became a leader, Hopson took a long time to develop, tough schedule, etc. But heck it was a 20 win season and all things considered I'm not going to complain. Some times challenges push you to great success and sometimes they are just challenges. This year was a challenge with 20 wins and a close tourney loss in the first round. Its stll great to be a Vol.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to richvol:

Pearl and his players need to do a lot of soul searching this offseason. Coach is the only one who can control who gives the proper effort and plays smart. Sadly he just did not get it done this year as he allowed the inmates to run the asylum.

Negedu came in for about four minutes and scored 6 points and grabbed two rebounds...then he was yanked. This kid plays as hard as anyone I ever saw yet the staff allows weak effort from other players to go unchallenged.

Someone else questioned if Coach K,Coach Williams or Coach Pitino would allow this lack of passion by his players yet still allow them to play...no way no how.

Did anyone else hear the announcers talking about how certain UT players were waiving to their families in the stands while they were in the game? Typical.

Regarding Negedu: in those short four minutes I saw Chism twice grab Negedu to turn him around and point him to where he was supposed to be and another time he set up for the press when everyone else was already back. He brings energy and effort, much like a new puppy, but he is not yet house broken.

shoelessvol#236864 writes:

This years team should some flashes of the teams of CBP past, however far too often! The passion of the game is played on defense and we did not do that. This team seemed to play hard most of the time, just not very smart. The hopeful additions of better guard play will make a big difference in next years season. In looking back, it's a good problem to be dissatisfied with a 20+ win season. GO VOLS!

RoadTrip writes:

in response to richvol:

Pearl and his players need to do a lot of soul searching this offseason. Coach is the only one who can control who gives the proper effort and plays smart. Sadly he just did not get it done this year as he allowed the inmates to run the asylum.

Negedu came in for about four minutes and scored 6 points and grabbed two rebounds...then he was yanked. This kid plays as hard as anyone I ever saw yet the staff allows weak effort from other players to go unchallenged.

Someone else questioned if Coach K,Coach Williams or Coach Pitino would allow this lack of passion by his players yet still allow them to play...no way no how.

Did anyone else hear the announcers talking about how certain UT players were waiving to their families in the stands while they were in the game? Typical.

I agree. Undisciplined, poor funamentals (they are called lay-up, free throw and box out for good reasons!), too much showboating, poor defensive footwork, too many minutes for Willams and Woolridge (should have been none for the later), too little minutes for Tatum and Negedu, poor recruiting (anybody that knows basketball knows that good guards are the keys to wins in tournaments), pathetic focus by the players - they played 20 minute games all year. Tyler tried too hard to overcome the inefffectiveness of his teammates. Do any of the coaches chart the shots over there? Nothing but 3's and put-backs. Whatever happened to the 10-15' jump shot?! How can we say they are talented when they are so mediocre to incompetent in those areas?

givehim6 writes:

I was really proud of ETSU and how they play Pitt. It had a David vs. goliath fill. Maybe what happed was because UT and OKY ST. were more evenly matched, UT lost some of there drive.

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