Mike Strange: 19-game checkup for Vols shows improvement in question

Mike Strange

Bruce Pearl on freshman forward Tobias Harris

Bruce Pearl said Monday it's too early to become a bracketologist. Check back in mid-February.

That's OK for a head coach of possibly the nation's most schizophrenic basketball team. He's got plenty on his plate.

The rest of us, however, don't have to figure out how to get Tobias Harris shots against LSU's two-three zone. We've got free time to speculate on where this Tennessee season might go.

The Vols are 12-7, matching the worst 19-game record of the Pearl era, in the 2008-09 season.

That team squeaked into the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed and lost at the buzzer to Oklahoma State in the first round.

Coincidentally, ESPN resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi rates the current Vols as a No. 9 seed this week.

I wondered Monday if Pearl thought this team's vagaries have been typical of what any team might experience in any season.

"It's not typical from the standpoint of one of the keys is which teams get better throughout the season?'' Pearl said.

"We had to be pretty good early because of the schedule, and we were. And then, have we gotten consistently better since early December? Obviously, we haven't.''

Why not? He mentioned second-half defense and unforced turnovers as culprits:

"Just enough to prevent us from giving us that edge we need to get it rolling.

"(But) we've played 19 ballgames, which is enough, at this point, to understand how to play together, to understand what our roles are.''

Here's a 19-game checkup on each of Pearl's previous five seasons:

2005-06: The Vols were 16-3, with a win at Texas, 7-1 in the SEC. Their 20th game was a monster win at Kentucky.

UT went 5-3 in the second half of the SEC season and, while landing a No. 2 seed in the tournament, seemed to lose its magic. It ended 22-8 in a second-round upset to Wichita State.

2006-07: UT was 14-5 in an upgraded non-conference schedule. There were wins over Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas, and losses to Butler, North Carolina and Ohio State.

Down the stretch, the Vols had to overcome a 1-3 record when Chris Lofton was injured and didn't notch their first SEC road win until Feb. 24 at Arkansas.

Strength of schedule paid off in a No. 5 seed. UT reached the Sweet 16 before losing at the buzzer to Ohio State and finishing 24-11.

Unquestionably, a strong finish.

2007-08: At 17-2, Tennessee was well on the way to a storybook 31-5 season and another Sweet 16 finish.

The Vols had wins at Xavier and over Gonzaga in Seattle, plus Ohio State and West Virginia, the only losses against Texas and at Kentucky.

It was a team that clearly improved down the stretch, losing only one regular-season game in its last 12 to earn an SEC title and a brief No. 1 ranking.

2008-09: At 12-7, the Vols had wins over Georgetown and Marquette, but homecourt losses to Gonzaga, Memphis and LSU.

The Vols secured their NCAA berth with late wins at South Carolina and Florida, and by reaching the SEC tournament championship game. Final record, 21-13.

2009-10: At 15-4 overall, 3-2 SEC, the Vols had yet to get Brian Williams back from the New Year's Day suspension. Still, that team had a win at Memphis and an upset of No. 1 Kansas.

And in contrast to this team, it beat College of Charleston and Charlotte. On the other hand, the 19th game was a home loss to Vanderbilt.

That team definitely improved, winning eight of its final 11 SEC games to finish 11-5 and earn a No. 6 seed - a springboard to the Elite Eight and a 28-9 record.

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

VOLtage writes:

Yawn. Wake me when its football season.

BigVolinCarolina writes:

Still have lots of games left. Just going to come down to how much they play as a team and play with heart.

VolunteerLifer writes:

I think some individual players have improved during the course of the year, and a few have not. But what has not improved is team play and player leadership. I think the inconsistency with which this team plays can be laid right at the feet of Bruce Pearl. It's his team. He is accountable.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to VolunteerLifer:

I think some individual players have improved during the course of the year, and a few have not. But what has not improved is team play and player leadership. I think the inconsistency with which this team plays can be laid right at the feet of Bruce Pearl. It's his team. He is accountable.

That is certainly correct in the sense that the boss/commander is always responsible for what happens on his watch. However, the players still have to play. CBP can shuffle the line-up all he wants, but if he can't count on a consistent level of good performance and leadership from more than a couple of them from one game to the next, it is hard to see what else he can do.

VolunteerLifer writes:

in response to johnlg00:

That is certainly correct in the sense that the boss/commander is always responsible for what happens on his watch. However, the players still have to play. CBP can shuffle the line-up all he wants, but if he can't count on a consistent level of good performance and leadership from more than a couple of them from one game to the next, it is hard to see what else he can do.

He can run the program without bringing the ncaa wolf to our door. He can be a coach that is always on the bench at game time, a coach that always travels with the team to away games. He can be a coach that can criticise a player for 'inconsistency' without sounding like a complete hypocrite. He can be a positive in this program rather than a distraction to the kids. That's what he can do.

Ultimately, a team takes on the personality of its coach, especially a team that has no player leadership. What is the personality of this team? I can't think of a word to describe it accurately. Confusion, maybe? That is to be laid right at the feet of Pearl, along with the disappointments in performance this season. He is their Coach. He is their mentor.

tonyvick#213307 writes:

in response to BigVolinCarolina:

Still have lots of games left. Just going to come down to how much they play as a team and play with heart.

Simpler than that it will come down to wins and losses whether they play as a team with heart or not.

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