Mike Strange: Vols prove to be hungry for more

Mike Strange

Tennessee was in a New York state of mind Tuesday night. Contrary to Bruce Pearl's fears, that was a good thing.

An 86-56 romp over Middle Tennessee State at Thompson-Boling Arena proved Pearl's fretting about a hangover from the Vols' giddy trip to The Big Apple to be unfounded.

A little slice of New York, in fact, was just what the Vols needed.

Early on, the Blue Raiders had just staged a 10-0 run to take a 10-8 lead.

OK, maybe Pearl was right to wring his hands.

But during the first media timeout, the JumboTron lit up with a video montage of highlights from Tennessee's victories over VCU and Villanova at Madison Square Garden last week. To the strains of "New York, New York" there were the smiling Vols hoisting the NIT Season Tip-Off trophy.

The crowd cheered, play resumed and Tennessee roared away on a 21-0 run.

Any suspense about this being a letdown game was over in a New York minute.

Trae Golden's 3-point shot capped the run and at 29-10. The remaining 27 minutes would be mere quibbling about the final margin.

As November gives way to December, the Vols look nothing like the out-of-sync outfit that stumbled and fumbled through an exhibition loss to Indianapolis less than a month ago.

And don't forget those nail-biting wins at home against Belmont and Missouri State.

The showing in New York, especially the 78-68 win over seventh-ranked Villanova, however, was a whole 'nother ballgame.

Villanova was the kind of win I knew Tennessee was capable of getting. Frankly, however, I thought it might be late January or early February.

This is a new team, replacing three senior starters. It's got a lot of parts still figuring out how to mesh. That takes time - thus, Indianapolis.

It's a long way from Indianapolis to Villanova.

"We've improved as much as any team I've had in the month of November,'' Pearl said.

"Was I surprised we played as well as we did in New York? Yes. Was I surprised this victory was a 30-point game? Yes.

"Back in the middle of November I don't know that I could have anticipated us playing this effectively.''

Don't start booking Final Four hotels yet. There's a lot of basketball to be played. And Tennessee still has a lot of upside to reach.

The win over Middle improved UT to 6-0, matching Pearl's best start in six seasons. Getting to 7-0 will be a tall order because it would have to come at No. 3 Pittsburgh on Dec. 11.

Let's not get barge into December just yet, though. A 30-point win over MTSU was a fine way to put November to bed.

"We made progress tonight,'' said Pearl.

One area of progress was long-range shooting, a consistent sore spot in November.

The Vols made 45.8 percent of their 3-pointers Tuesday night. They hit 8 of 15 in the tone-setting first half.

Scotty Hopson was 4-of-6 and Tobias Harris 2-of-2.

Hopson's recent surge is a critical element of UT's improvement. He scored 18 points in each of the New York wins and followed with 19 against the Blue Raiders.

Harris' impact can't be overstated. He has scored at least 15 points in every game and notched a career-high 21 Tuesday night.

That's amazing consistency from a freshman. But, of course, Harris isn't a typical freshman.

He is UT's best freshman since Allan Houston debuted in 1989-90 with a 20.3-point average.

"Tobias stuffs a stat sheet,'' said Pearl. "He just knows how to play.''

The Vols' mojo was so strong Tuesday that Skylar McBee banked in a long 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer. And that wasn't even the night's most popular trey.

That distinction belonged to Tyler Summitt, who banked in a 3-pointer from the corner with 26 seconds left, eliciting an explosive cheer.

"I thought they were happy for me,'' said Summitt. "No. They were happy for the chicken.''

When the Vols score 85 or more, a ticket stub is worth free chicken fingers at area Hardee's the next day.

Good basketball, even in November, can give you an appetite.

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.

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Comments » 12

jhayes0926#638474 writes:

would much rather face Pitt. after 3 days rest. 11 day layoff can be tough. IMO, Tobias is the best freshman UT has had since Bernard, including Allan Houston. He is as close to being ready for the pros as anyone I have seen in the SEC in many years. I hope we can keep him for 2 years, but it is going to be tough. Would be nice to have Harris and Hopson both next year with yet another year of experience together. A final four duo for sure next year.

pj_ladyvolnMI writes:

Love it! Just wish it had been streaming live online. Can't wait for the rest of the season!

finn writes:

Looks like Dooley has some competition for the best one-liners. The chicken line was outstanding. Good game, too.

TNVol71 writes:

Great pair of unexpected baskets to lift this team--McBee at the first half buzzer and Summitt at the end of the game. Keep up the great work. This is going to be an exciting team to watch. Go roundball Vols!!

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to jhayes0926#638474:

would much rather face Pitt. after 3 days rest. 11 day layoff can be tough. IMO, Tobias is the best freshman UT has had since Bernard, including Allan Houston. He is as close to being ready for the pros as anyone I have seen in the SEC in many years. I hope we can keep him for 2 years, but it is going to be tough. Would be nice to have Harris and Hopson both next year with yet another year of experience together. A final four duo for sure next year.

Iagree about the 11 day lay off;never a good thing;especially while Pitt plays 2games and stays sharp

murrayvol writes:

in response to finn:

Looks like Dooley has some competition for the best one-liners. The chicken line was outstanding. Good game, too.

It'll be fun to watch these two in tandem for the Big Orange Caravan next Spring.

nola_vol writes:

"...proved Pearl's fretting about a hangover ... to be unfounded."

UNFOUNDED?

Seems to me that Pearl's fretting proved EFFECTIVE, not "unfounded." Surely Strange isn't implying that had Pearl said nothing about it all week the Vols would still have played MTSU that well.

To Mike's credit, he offered those of us who watched on TV some real news when he related what prededed UT's 21-0 run after falling behind MTSU:

"...during the first media timeout, the JumboTron lit up with a video montage of highlights from Tennessee's victories over VCU and Villanova at Madison Square Garden last week. To the strains of 'New York, New York' there were the smiling Vols hoisting the NIT Season Tip-Off trophy."

So... is anyone else curious about who was responsible for making that video, and whose decision it was to play it when they did? (In Mike's defense, his deadline may have prevented him from finding out last night.)

Hopefully, someone will follow up and give credit where due.

SummittsCourt writes:

Interesting thought: Tennessee might be the only school in history to have the coach's son and the womens team's coach's son on the same team at the same time.

huntined#565710 writes:

Can't believe we are the only team in the SEC that has not lost a game... FLA and MISS ST. both have good teams..We will see some good games this year...

tmartin writes:

in response to SummittsCourt:

Interesting thought: Tennessee might be the only school in history to have the coach's son and the womens team's coach's son on the same team at the same time.

Who cares?? Neither of them can play.

nola_vol writes:

in response to tmartin:

Who cares?? Neither of them can play.

Yeah. Steven Pearl can't play... he just makes the team better when he's on the court.

Maybe you're confusing playground ball with basketball.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to nola_vol:

Yeah. Steven Pearl can't play... he just makes the team better when he's on the court.

Maybe you're confusing playground ball with basketball.

Maybe he's just going by appearance. If you saw Woolridge and young Pearl dressed out and standing side by side, who would you guess is BY FAR the more effective player? tmartin would probably be wrong on this.

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