Michigan Stat Box
Sports images sometimes last longer than truth should allow.
For example, take last year's first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The San Diego State scouting report for Tennessee was outdated by at least a year.
One Aztec after another raved about the Vols' full-court defensive pressure. Even coach Steve Fisher chimed in on the hardships it would impose in their tournament opener in Providence, R.I.
They might as well have been hailing the 3-point shooting of Chris Lofton.
Lofton, who starred on coach Bruce Pearl's first UT team, was long gone by last year's NCAA tournament. So was UT's full-court game.
But the image endured.
Not even the image has survived this season. As UT ventures into NCAA tournament play against Michigan on Friday, it's now lumped together with the great majority of college basketball teams whose offensive and defensive success are usually determined by tedious half-court skirmishes. Full-court pressure and momentum-turning transition baskets have been reduced to fond memories for the fans who embraced Pearl's brand of basketball when he arrived in Knoxville in 2005.
And the coach intends on doing something about it next season, provided there is a next season. If Pearl still has his job after the NCAA reaches a final verdict on UT's rules violations, he likely will bring back the same full-court system he implemented in 2005.
Never mind that the Vols advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament last season or that Pearl seems comfortable in half-court games. He said he would be more comfortable with the old system, the one he first learned under coach Tom Davis as a student assistant at Boston College. He discussed his reasons for changing as he waited for the announcement of the NCAA tournament field Sunday.
Pearl questioned whether his team could win a national championship by relying so heavily on a full-court defense. A 79-60 loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16 of the 2008 NCAA tournament helped shape his thinking. Circumventing the press often was child's play for the quick, athletic Cardinals.
Recruiting played a role, too. Pearl has been able to recruit a better quality of player at UT than he could in his lower-profile days at Southern Indiana and UW-Milwaukee. But the best players he signed weren't always the best fit for his system. So he made concessions.
"I wanted to put my personnel in the best system for them to be successful," he said.
One irony of the Pearl era is that his sixth team at UT isn't nearly as well suited for his full-court game as the Buzz Peterson leftovers he coached in his first season with the Vols. His next team - if there is "his next team" - might be more like Pearl's UT original. That means smaller and quicker.
My guess is fans will welcome the change. This team is no fun to watch. And its lack of appeal is impacted, in part, by its style of play. It either wins ugly or loses uglier.
In the last 20 years of SEC basketball, probably the three most entertaining teams were Arkansas under Nolan Richardson, Kentucky under Rick Pitino and UT's first teams under Pearl. All relied on a full-court game.
The Vols didn't win as much as the Razorbacks or the Wildcats but won enough to revive a long-suffering fan base. Despite qualifying for six consecutive NCAA tournaments, UT's program no longer engenders the same excitement.
Regardless of their system, the Vols aren't likely to outrecruit college basketball's elite programs. That doesn't mean they can't beat them - with a different style of play.
Tennessee won three of four games against Florida's back-to-back national championship teams with its fast, full-court game in 2006 and 2007. Playing the same way in the 2007 tournament, it lost to No. 1-ranked Ohio State by one point.
Those UT teams looked better losing than this one does winning.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http//:twitter.com/johnadamskns.