Michigan Stat Box
The bench didn’t work as a slump-breaker. Cam Tatum will answer the bell Friday when Tennessee takes on Michigan.
Coach Bruce Pearl confirmed Tuesday that Tatum will return to the starting lineup for UT’s NCAA basketball tournament opener in Charlotte.
The Vols (19-14) face Michigan (20-13) at 12:40 p.m. (TV: truTV) hoping to advance to a likely date with No. 1 seed Duke on Sunday.
Tatum, suffering through a prolonged scoring slump, was benched last Friday in favor of Josh Bone in what turned out to be an 85-74 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament.
“He felt like he had to make a statement,’’ Tatum said Tuesday. “It was a little frustrating, all the elements that were part of it.
“I think it was really to grab my attention, to take the pressure off or whatever it was.’’
What it was, said Pearl, was, “I was trying to play the ‘Can I (tick) you off more than you’re already (ticked) off?’ card.
“So he would get out there and go, ‘Really? Watch this.’ It didn’t work.
“So if you want to blame anybody, blame me.’’
Bone played 23 minutes and scored three points on 1-of-4 shooting. Tatum, who had started UT’s first 32 games, missed his only shot in seven minutes.
Although his average has diminished to 8.9 points a game, the 6-foot-6 junior wing still is UT’s third-leading scorer.
“He is our third-best player,’’ Pearl said. “I’ve said it many times. We need Cam to score for us to win.
“I’ve played Josh Bone in a lot of situations because, defensively, Josh is really good. Josh can’t do some of the things Cam can do offensively.’’
Tatum’s shooting has slumped to
38 percent and 27.7 percent from 3-point range.
Pearl said the key is getting Tatum to relax on offense without sacrificing any intensity on defense.
“Being uptight, nervous and concerned hasn’t helped him play better,’’ Pearl said.
“He cares. He wants to do well. We want him to perform.’’
But the memory of better times — for himself and his team — haven’t completely disintegrated as UT’s 7-0 start gave way to a 12-14 finish.
Perhaps the NCAA tournament can be a fresh break for Tatum and for a team that has slowly lost confidence over the past six weeks.
“We have one of the best teams in the country if we put all our talent together,’’ said Tatum.
“That’s what is so frustrating about this process.
“We know better than anybody the way we worked all summer long and how excited we were coming into the season.
“Things took off and everything was how we knew it was supposed to be. We thought that was how it was going to be all year long. We had that much confidence in each other.’’
And now they have to find a way to get it back. Quickly.