Kevin O’Neill has seen basketball teams struggle offensively in Thompson-Boling Arena before. Only back in the day, they were his teams.
From the visitors’ bench Tuesday night, fixing Tennessee’s problems wasn’t his agenda.
“They’re searching a little bit right now,’’ O’Neill said. “Everybody goes through those periods in their schedule.
“They’re going to be a good team. They’re going to bounce back. No question about that.’’
But for now, there’s no question that the Vol Express that rolled out of Pittsburgh on Dec. 10 has jumped the tracks.
A 65-64 loss to O’Neill’s Southern Cal Trojans marked only the second time UT has dropped three consecutive games in the Bruce Pearl Era.
“Frustrating, man. Very frustrating,’’ said junior Cam Tatum.
“I can’t remember the last time I lost three games in a row. Maybe my freshman year of high school.’’
Tuesday’s finish was almost a carbon copy of a 49-48 loss at Charlotte on Friday.
Just like Charlotte, the Vols, trailing by a point, rushed up court after a defensive possession only to have to call a timeout because of spacing and congestion issues.
Friday, they had 3.3 seconds and ended up with a low-percentage shot, a long 3-pointer by Tatum.
Tuesday, it was 3.5 seconds. They ended up with another long 3-pointer, this time by Tobias Harris.
It almost went in. Almost is getting to be a problem.
Since whipping Big East bad boy Pittsburgh convincingly, Tennessee has lost to a pair of mid-majors – Oakland and Charlotte - and now a pretty fair Southern Cal team that took Kansas to the wire three days earlier.
The only previous three-game skid in Pearl’s tenure was Vanderbilt-Ohio State-Auburn, all on the road in January 2007.
That team regrouped to reach the Sweet 16. This one has the potential to do as much.
But for now it better find enough answers to beat Belmont on Thursday night. The same Bruins pushed UT to the limit on Nov. 16. An 85-76 Tennessee win was a one-point game with 36 seconds to play.
Against Southern Cal, the Vols were fighting upstream the entire way. They trailed by 10 points, then eight, 51-43, and never led by more than two.
“Twenty-seven (Southern Cal) points off of 18 turnovers is probably what killed us,’’ said Pearl.
“If we could execute our offense and not turn the ball over we could put ourselves in position to win.’’
Both of the final possessions, at Charlotte and against Southern Cal, were representative of Tennessee’s problems. This team seems at a loss as to how to set up high-percentage shots. Spacing and timing are out of sync or out of reach.
All of a sudden Scotty Hopson shots are not high-percentage.
Since he did a number on Pittsburgh, Hopson is 8-of-31 from the field, including 1-of-10 from 3-point range.
“He’s trying,’’ said Pearl. “He’s working in practice.
“But he’s struggling and it affects his whole game and it affects our entire team.’’
To spacing, timing and errant shooting, add rotation issues to UT’s laundry list. The bench isn’t providing a lift. Pearl hinted adjustments might be forthcoming, but not until after the Christmas break.
It will be a merry Christmas break for O’Neill, who started UT out of the doldrums in a colorful three-year run before leaving abruptly in 1997. His new gig at Southern Cal is looking up.
“If you had told me we’d lose by a bucket at Kansas and win here when I scheduled those games,’’ he said, “I wouldn’t have believed it.’’
And if, on the way home from Pittsburgh 11 days ago, somebody had said the Vols were derailing into a three-game losing streak?
We wouldn’t have believed it either.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.