The time has come for Tennessee’s men’s basketball team to draw a line.
Not in the sand, but at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Because the Vols have failed to defend their home court this season, they are left with no choice but to defend it in the next two weeks.
Is there an or else attached to that statement? Yes, more or less.
Tennessee’s NCAA tournament credentials have been on a gradual decline for a while. The Vols (15-10, 5-5 SEC) tip off tonight at home against South Carolina.
Since a 7-0 start, UT has flip-flopped along at 8-10 through the meat of the regular season. Not very impressive.
The problems aren’t losses at Connecticut, Kentucky or Florida. While wins in any of those venues could have been résumé-clinchers, not winning won’t merit a stiff penalty.
The Vols should have won at Charlotte, could have won at Arkansas, but nobody’s perfect. Not even Ohio State, Kansas or Texas.
Tennessee’s real failure has been under its own roof. The Vols are a modest 9-5 in Thompson-Boling this season.
“We’ve lost close games at home but we’ve also won some close games,’’ Pearl said Tuesday. “Belmont twice, Missouri State and Vanderbilt.’’
You’re supposed to win close games at home. And the Vols have for nearly all of Pearl’s regime.
There was, in fact, a 35-game home winning streak that extended beyond two complete seasons.
Pearl’s first team lost only twice at home. Last year, despite the New Year’s Day roster purge, the Vols dropped only one home game. Ask Kansas how tough it was to win in Thompson-Boling.
So over four of Pearl’s first five years, his teams lost a grand total of three games in Knoxville.
The only season comparable to this one was 2008-09, when the Vols also lost five home games — of which only Gonzaga and LSU were NCAA tournament teams.
Still, perception-wise, this year’s home record looks worse.
Oakland and College of Charleston are capable mid-majors, but they shouldn’t beat Tennessee by double digits anywhere, much less in Knoxville. Southern Cal is 13-12 and going nowhere.
Overtime losses to Florida and Alabama are haunting. UT can only wonder if Pearl’s presence on the bench would have made a difference.
Pearl will be on the bench for the stretch run. And he’d better make a difference.
Of Tennessee’s six remaining regular-season games, four are at home: South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi State and Kentucky.
If the Vols defend their turf, road games at Vanderbilt (tough) and South Carolina (winnable) are gravy.
Go 4-0 at home and UT finishes no worse than 9-7 SEC and 19-12 overall. Given a terrific strength of schedule, that’s an NCAA tournament résumé.
“I can’t even go there,’’ Pearl said. “I don’t want to start playing the four-out-of-six-at-home game.
“We’ve got South Carolina here and this is a team that beat Florida at Florida and we didn’t do that.’’
Like the rest of the team, senior Brian Williams was caught off-guard by the Vols’ vulnerability at home. Asked if five losses was enough, he replied, “One is enough.’’
One more would be one too many. Better late than never, Tennessee has to draw that line.
“There’s nothing else we can do,’’ Williams said. “Losing is not an option.’’
That’s true because, up to now, losing has too often been an option.