In a season that stretches from November into March, pre-Christmas basketball easily is forgotten. Fortunately for Tennessee, the NCAA tournament selection committee didn’t forget.
Now, the Vols could benefit from a good memory of their own. Recapturing their early-season magic is their only hope of making a dent in the NCAA tournament.
The bracket isn’t encouraging. As a ninth seed, the Vols will play a first-round game against eighth-seeded Michigan. A victory likely would reward them with a second-round matchup against No. 1 seed Duke in Charlotte, N.C.
Popular thinking: No way they can beat Duke.
Counterpoint: And there was no way they could beat Pittsburgh, which also was honored with a No. 1 seed Sunday.
The Panthers were ranked No. 3 in the country when the Vols upset them 83-76 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 11. That was the high mark of UT’s 7-0 start, which included a victory over then-seventh-ranked Villanova.
Because of that, the Vols can say things like leading-scorer Scotty Hopson did Sunday with a straight face: “Our goal is to win the national championship.”
The goal didn’t sound so outlandish in the first quarter of the season, when the Vols won six consecutive games against Belmont, Missouri State, Virginia Commonwealth, Villanova, Middle Tennessee State and Pittsburgh. Five of those teams have won 21 or more games. Four of them are in the NCAA tournament.
It was a promising beginning for a program that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament last March. It also was terribly misleading.
The rest of the season has provided only a few reminders of the heady start. The Vols beat Memphis by 20 points. They won back-to-back games against Vanderbilt and Georgia. But they rarely have sustained excellence for more than a half.
So what’s the difference in the team that couldn’t lose before mid-December and the one that lost eight of its last 12 games to stumble into the NCAA tournament with a 19-14 record?
Point guard Melvin Goins has an interesting take. In a word, the difference is “excited,” according to him.
“We were real excited about playing,” he said of that early success. “It didn’t matter the opponent. We got up for every game, were excited and played together.”
As for the lackluster SEC finish, Goins said, “I don’t think we got up for some of the games. Obviously, the excitement and the mentality wasn’t the same during some games. And it showed with our play.”
The drop-off in excitement is most apparent when the Vols have the basketball. The offense hinges too much on the play of Tobias Harris and Hopson, and Hopson’s ball-handling deficiencies sometimes negate his scoring.
Cameron Tatum gave UT a third scorer initially when he averaged 12.1 points during UT’s 7-0 start. He has averaged 4.1 points in the past seven games and was replaced in the starting lineup by Josh Bone in Friday’s SEC tournament loss to Florida.
Center Brian Williams cited a couple of lines when asked for the biggest difference between UT’s successful start and lackluster finish.
First, the free-throw line: “We were first in the country in getting to the foul line,” he said. “Now, we’re last in the SEC.”
Then, the 3-point line: “Our 3s were falling (earlier),” he said.
The Vols were at their 3-point best in their finest hour. They made seven of 11 3-point attempts in their upset of Pittsburgh. Contrast that with their last game in which they were 4-for-19 against Florida.
Given UT’s frequent struggles from behind the 3-point arc, its marksmanship against Pittsburgh qualifies as an aberration. Maybe the outcome was as well.
But Pearl said it’s not unrealistic to think the team can regain what it lost in mid-December.
“I think our guys will be excited to play in the tournament,” he said.
That’s at least a step in the right direction.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.