Mike Strange: Losing-streak virus gets beaten back

Mike Strange
Tennessee's Skylar McBee and UNC Asheville's Matt Dickey get tripped up as they both chased after at loose ball at Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday, December 20, 2011.

Photo by Saul Young, Saul Young

Tennessee's Skylar McBee and UNC Asheville's Matt Dickey get tripped up as they both chased after at loose ball at Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday, December 20, 2011.

Losing becomes contagious. Like a virus it can worm its way in and weaken a body and a brain.

"You're worrying about things you shouldn't be worrying about,'' senior Cameron Tatum said Tuesday night.

"You start to play not to lose instead of just playing the game.''

Bull's-eye. That was an apt description of Tennessee's men's basketball team here lately. December had been one long losing streak for the Vols as they arrived at Thompson-Boling Arena to play UNC Asheville.

Tatum's analysis remained up to date for three-fourths of the evening. The Bulldogs, who had never previously beaten Tennessee in seven tries, were on their way to making history, leading 53-45 as the clock moved under 10 minutes.

Another word from Tatum:

"I think we played dumb basketball on this losing streak. We were doing stuff out of character.

"We've got to stick to the script. As we get our confidence we'll get aggressive and start playing smarter basketball.''

For all the world it looked as if the Vols were still wearing their knucklehead caps and headed down the same road that had led to losses to mid-

majors Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston.

Asheville came out of the halftime break and hit six of its first eight shots to expand its lead to 51-42. The Vols were initially so tentative they looked as if, well, as if they didn't want to go to a lower-tier bowl game.

But, surprise. This one had a happy ending for a crowd announced at 15,324. Tennessee toughed out a 72-68 win, its first since Chaminade at the tail end of the Maui Invitational.

In the category of quotes you haven't heard from an opposing coach lately, consider Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach's opening statement.

"They're a good team defensively,'' said Biedenbach.

The Vols, in fact, were, once they buckled down. After Asheville's 6-of-8 barrage to open the second half, the Bulldogs finished 3-of-16 until the final horn.

Another nugget from Biedenbach that was as sweet as a Christmas carol to Cuonzo Martin's ears:

"They played hard and that was the main advantage they had.''

Martin, the first-year UT coach, has been looking for that hardness in the first six weeks of his new season. He saw it as his team clawed from behind, caught and passed the feisty Bulldogs.

"Our guys did a great job for the first time of being down and finding a way to win the game,'' said Martin.

They made shots and they stopped Asheville from making shots. Basketball is really pretty simple.

Tatum, who could not buy a basket at the concession stand in the losses to Austin Peay and Charleston, hit two long treys in a little over a minute, the second one giving UT a 56-55 lead, its first since 2-0.

Then he hit another to erase Asheville's last lead, 59-58.

Any losing-streak virus that might have been setting up camp in Tatum's head was expelled.

"I just tell him to keep shooting,'' Martin said. "Don't look at me on the bench. I don't have any answers for you.''

Is this hard-fought win over a Big South Conference team the answer that will turn UT's season in a positive direction?

By this point, victory almost seemed like an upset. To their credit, the fans did not storm the court.

Three more home games await before the Vols hit the road to Memphis on Jan. 4. They can, and should, win all three.

Then the mid-majors go away. After Memphis, the SEC grind begins, with a visit from national champion UConn thrown in for good measure.

Wins will surely remain hard to come by, even if the Vols do play smarter and play harder and stick to the script. Another losing streak inevitably lurks ahead.

But this one is over. When Tennessee takes the court Friday night against ETSU, it won't be playing not to lose. It won't be worrying about things it shouldn't be worrying about.

Just play the game and see where that takes you.

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

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Comments » 18

decades_vol (Inactive) writes:

Huge win, at least from a psychological standpoint. No, it want make national headlines, but it was something that this team desperately needed. I've seen this team play some decent ball this year, but I've seen some terrible performances as well. Still too streaky and inconsistent to be a major factor in the upcoming Memphis-to-UConn gauntlet, but I would like to see them come up with a surprise or two. But first, the mid-majors are still coming, and they have to be taken one at a time. As for tonight, it wasn't a work of art, but I'll take it.

TommyJack writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

nag, nag, nag. enjoy the win.

FanNotSheep writes:

Any win is big when you've lost four straight. But before you gloss over everything that happened this season, remember that the Austin Peay team we lost to was perhaps one of the worst teams to ever set foot in Thompson Boling Arena. Yet they were not the worst team on the court that day. Hope that keeps things in perspective for you.

DarkGable writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Looky here another couch potato coach. Calls a team lazy because??? This team plays harder than you do munching on chips and coaching from your couch. This team is far from lazy. Try playing the game sometime. Also, its losing not loosing, you couch potato expert.

DarkGable writes:

in response to FanNotSheep:

Any win is big when you've lost four straight. But before you gloss over everything that happened this season, remember that the Austin Peay team we lost to was perhaps one of the worst teams to ever set foot in Thompson Boling Arena. Yet they were not the worst team on the court that day. Hope that keeps things in perspective for you.

Dude, the Austin Peay game is over. You pride yourself on being a fan. No dude, its sheep like you who pride themselves on their ability to criticize a win. Another couch potato expert who obviously is on the Div I level. You couldn't coach upward bound.

eb502us#225637 writes:

We should be jumping for joy at snapping the streak? We beat UNC-Ashville.....at home no less.

I keep reading Martin's quotes and they sound as though he has no expectations to win any games this year. I really thought from what I heard early on he was going to be a keeper, but from what I see and hear, I think not.

And as far as playing "dumb" basketball, how ironic that the poster child for that "dumb" play is the one opening his mouth.

Tatum should be riding the pine (and would be on most teams) instead of playing the minutes he does. No other way to put it - he's gone backwards since the day he arrived on campus and was never that good to begin with.

Since our coach seems to have no expectations for this team, he needs to let the freshman, especially Richardson, get Tatum's minutes. He's that much smarter and better anyway and perhaps his development will help him stay around a few more years.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

Decent win against another good mid major;Martin is using these games to see if anybody can be consistent on both sides of the ball;So far only Maymon and sometimes Hall have proven consistent..Clearly this is a challenge for any coach..I still say that since Maymon and Hall avg 12 ppg the key to success lies with Tatum and McRae shooting better game in and game out;Till that happens every game will be a dog fight since up until last night the opposition has played with a chip on the shoulder and they all have played good defense and shot well..The Vol's playing good defense helps but bottom line is we must shoot 50% if we hope to win

TommyJack writes:

in response to Count__Itsvan_Teleky:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Notice to trollers: If you're gonna troll, at least have some talent.

budd#207344 writes:

in response to Count__Itsvan_Teleky:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Any real UT alum would not have to degrade the team. They would point out the issues and then possibly suggest some solutions. But they would certainly not be ignorant enough to predict the coaching future of a person based on 10 games. That would probably come from a non grad who likes to claim he is an alum (commuter geek?). Or possibly a loser who would have said the same thing about Coach K after his first 10 games at Duke. Even your trolls are poor. I'm guessing alabubba for a semester? Right?

underthehill writes:

Give Tatum credit..he stepped up big tonite..I am one of his worst critics because I want to see him play up to his talent level which is higher than we have seen thus far. I believe Martin also sees it this way. Any critics of Martin are out of touch with reality. The reality of the game of basketball and what it takes to win. Martin understands because of his past. I think UT got lucky w/Martin and only time will tell. 2 or 3 years of time. I have seen enough in football to have an opinion which I will not bore u with. I have not given up on basketball and it is not hard for me to watch this team. It was hard for me to watch last year's talented team the last half of the year. No reason to discuss why if you are a UT basketball fan.

decades_vol (Inactive) writes:

Ahh, the Count of Monty Fisto. Seeker of immediate gratification. Reduced to squealing when things are not going exactly his way. A walking temper tantrum from a man claiming to be from the Ernie and Bernie days. Look, I remember those days. Me and some friends drove to Atlanta to watch the Tennessee-UCLA game in '77. Hey but now it's 2011. We don't have a King or Grunfeld, but it's no reason to bash on these guys we have now. Act like you're in your fifties, instead of your teens. Turn your cap around toward the front of your head and pick your sagging shorts up. Be a real fan, and a real man. Otherwise, go back to Animal House South and let your buddies spank you with a paddle.

FanNotSheep writes:

in response to DarkGable:

Dude, the Austin Peay game is over. You pride yourself on being a fan. No dude, its sheep like you who pride themselves on their ability to criticize a win. Another couch potato expert who obviously is on the Div I level. You couldn't coach upward bound.

No I couldn't coach basketball. From what I've seen so far, neither can Cuonzo Martin. Bruce Pearl, on the other hand, was one of the top college basketball coaches in the country and we fired him because we were afraid of what the NCAA might have done to our precious football program. Which proves the experts who maintain UT will always be a football school are exactly right, and proves the idiots in charge of the UT athletic department were too dumb to realize that with 60 scholarship players on the roster Dooley played with in 2010, Lane Kiffin had already destroyed the football program.

Look at Ohio State; they were guilty of everything short of murder and all they lose in three scholarships. So they forfeit one bowl game and reload with 82 scholarships. No problem.

And please, by all means do share your coaching credentials with us.

TheRealDragonSlayer writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

There is no coach in the country that doesnt have to call a timeout at some point to remind his team to play defense. Mike Krzyzewsk does it, Dean Smith did it, Roy Williams does it, ALL coaches of all teams do it...because guess what...these are still kids playing basketball...emotions take over, they get a bit lax sometimes, overconfidence creeps in, they lose confidence, get tired, there are dozens of reasons why this may happen.

But one thing is for sure. The way you seem to go about life, it must suck to be you. Stop with the negativity, and life will be so much better.

budd#207344 writes:

in response to Count__Itsvan_Teleky:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Been there, watched Ray too but lived on the Main Row not backstreet. And CMK didn't have to face the possible sanctions that CCM did when he recruited his first class.
Quote from CMK bio
Krzyzewski took over at Duke for the 1980-81 season, leading the Blue Devils to a 17-13 record and the NIT quarterfinals in his first year. In his fourth season he earned his first NCAA Tournament berth with the Devils.
Took him four years to get to the dance.His record was 17-13, 10-17, 11-17, and finally 24-10. So by your definition, CMK was a fraud cause he would never have gotten to yr 2 with you. This alone proves you know nothing

johnlg00 writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Given your history of disparaging comments about Martin and the current Vol team, asking why he has to call a timeout to remind the team to play defense implies that good coaches with decent teams never have to do that. You don't have to be in the huddle with Duke, UNC, UK, or whatever team and coach you want to use as a standard to know that coaches are ALWAYS on their teams about something or other. The coaches and players themselves say so.

Also, you commit the classic trollism of confusing your opinions with facts. You said the team was lazy as if that were FACTUAL. All you or anybody can say is that they may have LOOKED lazy on occasion. It is easy to confuse laziness with uncertainty or even ignorance or inexperience. You question what outsiders can know about what is discussed in team huddles, yet you claim to know--as a FACT--what is going on in players' minds and hearts. That shows that your own understanding of logic is somewhat lacking as well.

We get it. You don't think much of Martin or the team. That is your opinion and you are welcome to it. Others have different opinions. Opinions are neither right or wrong; they just ARE.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

All I am saying is that it is not a FACT that the players are lazy. I have said that the team has some bad habits, but having been a coach, I know that it is not possible to train a lifetime of bad habits out of players in a few months. Blocking out on rebounds is a habit; paying attention to the ball and other players is a habit; even diving for loose balls is a habit. The amount of effort a player expends in what activities on the floor is ALSO a habit.

It is not necessary to attribute poor performance to defects of mind or morals. Maybe you didn't intend to imply such. I agree completely that the team drastically underachieved against APSU. I haven't seen anyone on here who thinks otherwise. Pearl's last couple of teams also underachieved in some of the same ways. The guys who are starting now certainly didn't overachieve last year or they likely would have played more. Rebuilding a team is as much a matter of changing minds and habits as it is installing a system or even deciding who plays.

Finally, I would say that the kinds of "lazy" play you referenced were not nearly as evident against UNCA as they were against APSU. Who knows, the difference might just be the players and the coaches seeing a bit more eye-to-eye than they did before.

voloffaith writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Ah Tar Tar a question for the ages.....Methodology combined with player aptitude and willingness to learn. That might be good indicators,but I'm not in each player to know what makes them tick and neither is dooley or Martin. But through time some indicators mighy reveal themselves and coaches pick up on it and try to drive by them assuming they are ethical and reasonable. FFT..so chew away as we all have our lil opinions.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

To add perhaps just a little too much to vol4gzus' cogent comments, the question you asked goes to the heart of the art of coaching. One thing I have noticed over the years, though I am certainly not the only one, is that basketball players as a group are probably the most neurotic of all players of team sports. They have large but rather fragile egos. They so closely identify their games with their own personalities that they take criticism of aspects of their game as personal criticism.

Much of what I initially learned of this was from the books of Red Auerbach and John Wooden. Speaking harshly to some players can cause them to shut down communication completely rather than motivate them to improve. Speaking kindly to certain others means to them that you just don't really care. That is one reason why Bob Knight always said that only a certain type of player could thrive in his system. It takes a fairly rare type of maturity on the part of a player to separate criticism of his game from attacks on his character. Pat Summit over the years has been quite successful, at least eventually, in helping her players understand the difference.

Every coach has to approach this problem differently for each player. Auerbach wrote at length about how he identified which players he could yell at and which ones he didn't have to say anything at all to. Often he would yell at a mentally-strong player about something a more fragile player was actually doing wrong, something like, "Russell, your defense on that play was lousy!" while looking at Ramsey, who was actually the player screwing up.

Well, you've read enough of my posts by now to know that I'm hard to stop when I get on a roll, so I'll just conclude by saying that NO ONE on this board knows FOR SURE how Martin is handling the defects that we often all see on the floor. From hearing him speak, I'm guessing that he feels that this team needs a calmer, less demonstrative style to help them improve, which may or may not be what is actually needed. That doesn't sit well with some of the old-school, fire-and-brimstone types who post on here. I'm just saying that the ULTIMATE judgment on how well he is doing will be shown on the floor, but it is WAY too early to be making such judgments now.

I'm sorry if I have misunderstood where you have been coming from. I've seen so much knee-jerk garbage on here from so many people who claim to be Vol fans and/or basketball experts that I sometimes forget who is who.

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