Mike Strange: Close calls are norm for Vols

Mike Strange

So this is what it's come to in the final hours of 2010, a newsworthy and historic year for Tennessee basketball.

Some 352 days after an improbable, inspired upset of No. 1 Kansas, the Vols are scrapping down to the wire to beat the worst team on their schedule.

As of last March, Tennessee was fighting to the finish with the likes of Ohio State and Michigan State. Now, it's with the likes of Belmont and UT Martin.

An announced crowd of 17,481 came to Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday night with reasonable expectations of not gritting their teeth through a fourth consecutive one-point finish.

Hey, it wasn't like Oakland or Charlotte were in the house. If the Vols were going to blow anybody out, it would be UT Martin.

Mission accomplished: 68-62.

Comparatively speaking, a romp.

"I was hoping all the media was in Nashville with the football team,'' coach Bruce Pearl quipped to begin his post-game news conference.

"Unfortunately I'm disappointed to see you guys.''

Explanations are in order. What's happened to Tennessee since its tour de force at Pittsburgh on Dec. 11?

The Vols' downward spiral has taken them to losses against Oakland, Charlotte and Southern Cal, a one-point win over Belmont and now 40 minutes of mostly playing from behind against lowly Martin.

Here's who Martin is:

The Skyhawks have won four games, two of them against somebody named William Woods and somebody named MacMurray. That leaves two Division I victories and one of them was over winless Centenary.

Tennessee's football team, with all its issues, drubbed Martin 50-0 in September. I don't know what the basketball equivalent of 50-0 is, but it's not 68-62.

The Skyhawks, who lost 100-40 at Ohio State 48 hours earlier, didn't play lights out Wednesday night by any means. They had one nice player - guard Reuben Clayton who scored 21 points and hit five 3-point shots.

Other than Clayton, Martin had a bunch of undersized but scrappy guys, including four freshmen in the rotation.

Martin's tallest player was 6-foot-7 but that didn't prevent the Skyhawks from winning the boards, 35-30.

Pearl essentially said Martin outrebounded UT because the Skyhawks were smaller and quicker, chasing down the loose balls. Tobias Harris was the only Vol with more than three rebounds.

Another explanation was that the Vols need to "man up,'' in the words of junior Scotty Hopson.

"When we were beating people by a lot more points and being a lot more successful, we were playing like men,'' Hopson said. "We've got to get back to doing that.''

Harris, meanwhile, had been delayed by the blizzard in New York and didn't get back on campus until late Tuesday night.

His game, however, was stranded on a tarmac at LaGuardia and didn't arrive at the arena until about the 5-minute mark.

That's when he scored 10 of his 13 points, including eight in a row to take UT from a 58-58 tie to a 66-60 lead with 13 seconds to play.

"It's been a crazy week,'' he said.

It's been a crazy 18 days since Pittsburgh.

For one thing, Pearl is struggling to set his best rotation.

"I think the biggest factor for me,'' he said, "is that we are consistently inconsistent.

"If you're asking the head coach who he wants to have out there, the head coach doesn't know who he wants out there.''

For another thing, whoever's out there, 3-point shooting remains a challenge.

The Vols entered the game tied for 288th in the nation in 3-point accuracy at 30.5 percent.

They hit three of their first four treys against Martin, then slumped back to form, making only two of the remaining 12.

Pearl ticked off nine names, all of whom he said are "capable" 3-point shooters. The nine currently range between 14 and 36 percent.

"Any one of those guys has to be accountable and responsible for making some shots,'' Pearl said.

If not, there are more nail-biters in store. And it remains to be seen how many will have endings that are, if not exactly happy, at least qualify as a relief.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 6

flatrock writes:

This is a team that is suddenly playing with zero heart. It is a team that is playing like it already knows Bruce Pearl's fate- and it ain't good. I am afraid that the NCAA wants Bruce gone and that UT officials are trying to
negotiate a settlement that would remove
Bruce but save the program scholarships, TV
time and tourney eligibility. This is very ugly
and very sad.

TennVol01 writes:

I must have missed the story, but Tennessee has dropped to 34th in the AP Poll and 33rd in the ESPN Coaches Poll. They are ranked higher than I expected. Anyway, now maybe the target is off their backs.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

For sure guards missing wide open 3's are hurting us..All of the guards have been inconsistent.,Guards shoot and create;It bothers me that Goins;Tatum and Golden don't average 75% or better on FT's.A Free Throw is exactly what it says!!! A free 2 points!!!A shooting guard should be deadly from the FT line just like Lofton was..Period end of story..As for the heavy player rotation it's pretty clear that with Maymon;Fields;Golden;McRae and others they need real game playing time to get better..This isn't rocket science here..The first 10 games of the season is when you integrate all new players.If Chism had been playing against UTM he would have hammered them for 25 points; but Williams is not Wayne!!!If your wondering why Williams got pulled it's because for the 2nd game in a row he had turnovers following nice feed passes so given UTM's small line up Bruce got the chance to see if Maymon and Fields together could create some offense if Williams has foul trouble in future games..The answer is no!!!Neither are good enough off the dribble to be a factor

Greyfeathers writes:

Flatrock is right. Lyin' Bruce's days are numbered. Goodbye Lyin' Bruce. That UT kept him at all is a slap in the face to every sports minded person who believes in playing by the rules. Goodbye and good ridance to Lyin' Bruce.

volsfan74 writes:

I have supported CBP and UT through this whole debacle, but last night starting Steven over Harris was STUPID. I know CBP said he wanted to evaluate Tobias at the shoot around, IMO Tobias has more offense kneeling on one knee shooting backwards with one arm tied behind his back then S. Pearl. I like S. Pearl and he has a lot of heart but he isn't good enough to start for UT Martin let alone for the VOLS. It kills me to say this seeing I've defended him so much but CBP is not "coached" this year.

Bruceismycoach writes:

Lazybones, you must know nothing about Tennessee Basketball. Why do you post this nonsense on every article? Are you telling everyone you've never lied? Bruce had a BBQ and lied about it. TN basketball will be terrible again if he leaves. UT's student body will be angrier than when Lame Kitten left if UT fires Bruce. It won't happen so pick another school to go for if your are so perfect.
Maybe Kentucky will let you be a fan. But you might be disappointed because I am pretty sure Coach Cal cheats more than anyone in the NCAA.

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