Mike Strange: Something is missing ... Vols looking for a closer

Mike Strange
Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson (22) celebrates while leaving the court in the final seconds of their NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Oxford, Miss. Mississippi won 62-56. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson (22) celebrates while leaving the court in the final seconds of their NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Oxford, Miss. Mississippi won 62-56. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

OXFORD, Miss. — Tennessee needs a closer to bring in out of the bullpen and get the ground-out to end the game.

The Vols need that sure-footed veteran who can trot out on the field and boot the ball dead between the uprights from 40 yards as the clock hits zeroes.

Excuse the mixed-sports metaphors, but I don't know how else to describe what's missing from this UT basketball team.

You want a team that can go in a hostile arena and fight the good fight, call the Vols.

But if you want a team that makes the winning plays at crunch time, well, call somebody else.

"The good part is putting yourself into position,'' UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Now, you've got to do it.''

That's what Martin said Thursday night after the Vols pushed No. 23 Ole Miss to the limit before losing 62-56.

Or, maybe he said it last Tuesday at Rupp Arena, where Tennessee gave Kentucky a surprisingly tough time.

Or, he could have said it at Alabama four games back after the Tide rallied to escape with a 68-65 win.

The Vols are 1-4 in SEC play. They won one big and lost one big. The other three were there for the taking. Tennessee couldn't take any of the three.

The one they lost big was to these same Rebels, 15 days ago in Knoxville.

The predictable script was for a similar sequel Thursday night. Ole Miss came into a rocking, socking, sold-out Tad Smith Coliseum riding a seven-game winning streak into the Top 25.

Yet the Vols grabbed the nation's third-best scoring team (82.4 points a game) by the shorts and dictated a plodding tempo.

UT led 25-18 at the half.

"It was a boring first half,'' said Marshall Henderson, the Rebels' mercurial triggerman, "nobody was scoring.

"That's how they win games.''

UT still led 31-24 with 16 minutes to play, and 50-44 when Jarnell Stokes converted a three-point play with 7:02 on the clock.

"We knew it was going to be a fist fight,'' said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy.

But the Rebels have a knock-out punch and the Vols don't.

That's why Ole Miss is streaking toward an NCAA tournament bid and UT is angling for a repeat NIT engagement.

The Vols deserve much credit for their resilience. They lost their lead in the second half and got it back again. Then they stumbled while Ole Miss went on a 9-0 run for a 58-53 lead.

They weren't done yet.

Jordan McRae's 3-point bucket made it a 58-56 game and, moments later, he went to the free-throw stripe with two chances to forge a tie.

The burden of carrying his team finally was too much. An excellent free-throw shooter, 11-of-12 on the night thus far, McRae missed both tries.

The Vols got four more possessions — four! — in a position to tie the game but came up blank on every one.

Thus, the hump is still there, waiting to be gotten over.

Perhaps the Vols should take heart in the words of their tormentor, Henderson, who scored 24 of his 28 points in the second half.

He was 0-for-4 on 3-point tries in the first half, then ripped in six treys in the second.

"All it takes is one,'' Henderson said. "All I need to see is it go through the net one time.

"Then it comes.''

Tennessee is still waiting for that first one.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

© 2013 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 30

Bogytrain writes:

Good teams win close games, bad teams lose close games. I don't know the exact stats, but Pearl was like 85-8 (or something like that) when leading or tied with 5 minutes to go. Cuonzo can't close, like Buzz before him. Personally, I would start with foul shooting.

decades_vol (Inactive) writes:

I was able to watch only the last 3 minutes of the game. When I turned the tv on, the Vols were down only 58-56. I thought "hey, we've got a chance". Ole Miss gave Tennessee every opportunity to win this game, but the Vols couldn't take advantage. We all know how the game ended. It was bad all around.

Now UT is 1-4 in the SEC. But oddly enough, this is not a bad basketball team. Except for the Ole Miss foulfest at TBA, Tenn had at least an outside opportunity to beat Bama, Kentucky, and Ole Miss on the road. They could be 4-1, or at least 3-2. Like I said, this is not a bad team. But I will admit, like most of you, they are playing some really bad basketball. I don't pretend to know why. But I do know that this team can go to a lot of hostile places and play toe to toe with most teams. Just ask Georgetown. Even the Virginia game was close right until the end. Maymon's loss makes a huge difference, but even without him, this team has potential to finish well. But with the way they are finishing games right now, I don't really know what to expect. Bottom line, Tenn can play with a lot of good teams, but they have the hardest time beating any of them.

td writes:

Mental toughness and focus in the last five minutes of any close game determines the winner. The will to win is paramount, and that is something that CAN be coached. These Vols need some time in the Sports Psychology Department. As it is right now, they are finding ways to lose.

DC82_Vol writes:

Dang, I got sucked in again. I thought TN BB had a chance. Then I had to remember, it's TN sports; we can find a way to lose any game in the final 5 minutes. At least the Lady Vols BB team was worth watching until the end. I am tired of TN men's sports programs sucking.

ALCANVol writes:

Something missing? Two words: Bruce Pearl

SouthPaVol writes:

Five games into SEC play, and the thought of "wait until next year" starts creeping in. We only loose two seniors; Maymon should be back; we'll have a shooting guard; ... etc,

Losing folks early to the draft is a possibility. Two players are currently playing well enough; neither was a starter at the beginning of the year--one doesn't start now. I hope both decide to stay with the Vols and not declare early or transfer. Next year looks good, but this year could look good. I would recommend increased minutes for one young player.

I dislike KY basketball with a passion, but Coack Cal has no problem starting a talented freshman; letting him make freshman mistakes early; then, by tourney time, the kid is seasoned and can contribute. Moore could be THAT guy.

At a 6'5" guard, Moore gets as many rebounds and blocks as anyone, playing half the minutes of our "big" guys. He should start. He is not new to the team. Pretty sure he played in the Italy tour before the season. Not sure he is point guard material. For this team, however, the kid could start at 2, 3, or 4 in my book.

Things change as the season progresses. But at this point compared to McRae and Moore, some of our players look like they are in slow motion. Would like to see them get it out of first gear and start playing full speed. If we are up by 20 points with 5 min to go, we don't need a closer. Go Vols!

doubledeuce22Q writes:

BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!

Sir_Spanky writes:

Shew. Mercy.

VolMoment writes:

Please can it be the officals are all BAD! I am just wondering. Also come on coach show some emotion get on the officals! Come on team we need some wins. Volmoments wife's comment!.....

brokebackvol writes:

BRING BACK BRUCE!!!

DwayneElizondoMountainDewHerbertCamacho writes:

I really, really want Martin to succeed, but he seems determined to screw it up.

God...I miss Coach Pearl.

UT should have stood up to the NCAA and stuck with Pearl.

mborokyvol writes:

The Vols could have won, if they knew how to switch or hedge out on a guy coming off a screen. Everyone watching that game knew, that turd, henderson would be coming off a screen or double screen and the Vols looked helpless to stop it! The Vols out rebounded ole miss 41 to 30 and were 17 of 27 from the charity stripe, but they were lost in the second half in gaurding one guy, who was running basically the same play over and over.

martinvol34 writes:

in response to ALCANVol:

Something missing? Two words: Bruce Pearl

Trae is a liability and why people don't switch on those moving screens by the opposition is beyond me. You get the opportunity to guard two people just by running over the screener, LOL.

Seriously, Trae is just soft and lazy. Bottomline.

rbwtn writes:

When you get a Great Coach you have to put-up with his idiosyncrasies. A Bruce Pearl doesn't come around that often and we had him and forced him to leave because of holier than thou reasons. An A.D. must take the good with the bad. UT kicked him to the curb and is paying the price!

maciste54 writes:

At this point I'm not going to be a supporter of CCM , as much as I like him, as long as I was Dooley. Things are way to similar.
Why can't UT ever seem to find a shooter like Henderson. With the exception of Pearl's teams they always seem to have a bunch of brick layers. And really, do they ever practice free throws ?

jack4444 writes:

They are as painful to watch on offense as the football's defense was.

I swear they get a decent shot attempt only about half their possessions.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

I found it hard to get a gauge on if we were playing better BBall or not because it was probably the worst officiating Ive ever seen in a basketball game..It does remain true that this team has far too many turnovers when we have the lead..We have lost some close games at the end because of missed 3 pointers that could have gone either way. Being that clutch shooter with the game on the line can be really tough and Martin not having a nice set play isn't helping!! I can only think of 2 players at UT that could be counted on to hit the 3 that wins the game..That is Lofton and J.Smith..I was there at the Tourney game when Lofton hit the 3 to beat So Car. and advanced us to the second round..A truly great moment in Vol history that got wrecked by a once in a million year tornado in Atlanta..Smith and Lofton went on to have another great game against in a loss to a very good Arkansas team

TrackVol1975 writes:

First, while I liked Bruce Pearl, UT had no option but to fire him. Believe me, had we kept him, the NCAA would have gotten its revenge a thousand times, and our basketball program would have been decimated. Furthermore, every other UT athletic program would have undergone the kind of scrutiny that no program could handle.

Second, while Ole Miss currently is winning, it is obvious that the program tolerates some very bad characters, and that will come back to haunt them in the future. A coach that encourages his players to mouth off is not a coach who is going to keep any kind of order.

Does anyone think that Nick Saban would permit that kind of open braggadocio from one of his players? Believe me, Ole Miss will pay for this in the future, as Henderson apparently believes that he can run his mouth and that there will not be payback.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to mborokyvol:

The Vols could have won, if they knew how to switch or hedge out on a guy coming off a screen. Everyone watching that game knew, that turd, henderson would be coming off a screen or double screen and the Vols looked helpless to stop it! The Vols out rebounded ole miss 41 to 30 and were 17 of 27 from the charity stripe, but they were lost in the second half in gaurding one guy, who was running basically the same play over and over.

Some pretty good comments here, considering that we have all seen this movie before. I agree with you that the Vols got beat all too often on the same play. I think I would have told the defender on the screener to step out to at least make Henderson hesitate or change direction. If the main defender is trailing Henderson, which was often the case because of all the off-ball screens he was getting, and the ball screener's defender steps out, you run the risk of the screener rolling toward the basket. However, would you rather have Henderson stepping into another open 3-pointer or a relatively clumsy post player having to catch a tough pass and make an effective move into the lane? It was as likely as any other outcome that the OM post player would fumble the pass, run over a defender, or put up a contested shot. If you fouled him, you would be putting a poor free-throw shooter at the line. I would 100% prefer any of those outcomes, including an uncontested dunk, over giving a hot Henderson even one more open look at a 3-pointer.

hikerdude writes:

Bad,boring basketball. BBB

johnlg00 writes:

in response to collegegrovebilly:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I agree. The last thing any Vol fan has to worry about is any player going pro after this year unless he just has rocks in his head and wants to play in the Phillipines the rest of his career. I don't consider this a knock on anybody, just reality. That doesn't mean they can't be good college players, or even that they can't have a winning season this year, or even that they can't go pro eventually. It DOES mean that if you only have one guy who can reliably get his own shot, you have to have some plays to help him get open when the defense clamps down. This thought occurred to me reading some of the other posts, but I might as well put it down here.

In the last few minutes, the idea seemed to be to put the ball in Jordan's hands and let him make a play. OK, fine. He had a pretty good game going except for all the relatively unforced turnovers--and was it just me or did that seem like one of the slipperiest floors in all of college basketball?--guys were falling down all over on both sides the whole game--but the Vols' alignment virtually invited OM to double-team him out top whenever he tried to go around his man. The wings just stood around, letting the defenders deny them the ball while staying in position to pounce on the double-team. Those guys have to move to make the defenders move. The defenders never had to worry about the Vol wings losing them because they just stood there watching Jordan like everybody else in the building.

Since it seems that nearly every game this year has come down to execution in the last four minutes, that should be ALL the Vols work on in terms of strategy the rest of the season. They have a style and enough ability to keep them in most games, but they will continue to squander the opportunities they DO give themselves if they don't tighten up their late-game play.

GOJO writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Some pretty good comments here, considering that we have all seen this movie before. I agree with you that the Vols got beat all too often on the same play. I think I would have told the defender on the screener to step out to at least make Henderson hesitate or change direction. If the main defender is trailing Henderson, which was often the case because of all the off-ball screens he was getting, and the ball screener's defender steps out, you run the risk of the screener rolling toward the basket. However, would you rather have Henderson stepping into another open 3-pointer or a relatively clumsy post player having to catch a tough pass and make an effective move into the lane? It was as likely as any other outcome that the OM post player would fumble the pass, run over a defender, or put up a contested shot. If you fouled him, you would be putting a poor free-throw shooter at the line. I would 100% prefer any of those outcomes, including an uncontested dunk, over giving a hot Henderson even one more open look at a 3-pointer.

**************

Agree. We looked like we had never seen a screen play before, & had no idea how to stop it.
...

johnlg00 writes:

Based on their play this season, the only Vol who looks like he could play in the NBA some day is McRae. He has a similar build and game to JR Smith, somewhat of a career journeyman who is capable of having big games, who I think is with the Knicks right now. McRae only needs to get stronger and continue to refine his game. All the rest of them, including Stokes, have a LONG way to go make the pros, even in the higher European leagues.

ewhite#207432 writes:

UT misses Bruce Pearl a lot. He completley revitalized UT basketball.He actually believed Vol fans in Nashville matter. He brought his team to Bridgestone to play almost every year. Ah those were the days...

RollTideJoe writes:

in response to TrackVol1975:

First, while I liked Bruce Pearl, UT had no option but to fire him. Believe me, had we kept him, the NCAA would have gotten its revenge a thousand times, and our basketball program would have been decimated. Furthermore, every other UT athletic program would have undergone the kind of scrutiny that no program could handle.

Second, while Ole Miss currently is winning, it is obvious that the program tolerates some very bad characters, and that will come back to haunt them in the future. A coach that encourages his players to mouth off is not a coach who is going to keep any kind of order.

Does anyone think that Nick Saban would permit that kind of open braggadocio from one of his players? Believe me, Ole Miss will pay for this in the future, as Henderson apparently believes that he can run his mouth and that there will not be payback.

Excellent post, common sense. I was reading everyone before you say "bring back Pearl". Your comments are exactly correct!

tulelakevol writes:

Like I said at the start of this season, middle of the pack SEC team. Record shows bottom right now. Coach Martin is not the answer. Can he turn it around? He needs to convince his guys, teach these guys how to win. Good coaches bring out the best in their players. 0-1 vs Austin Peay under Martin. Nuff said.

monstermd writes:

It makes me sick to my stomach to see some of the people talk about Bruce Pearl in high regards even though he lied. I graduated from UT Knoxville in 99. I love the school, I love the sports, but more people will graduate from that school and go into areas other than sports than be a professional athlete. I would rather take my bumps and bruises with a clean program than a win at all cost. Because at the end of the day, most people will get a job from UT based on the academia side of things and not based on how many championships the program won. Championships are nice, they bring in money for the program, but they don't pay the bills for people like me.

bigdisbig writes:

They don't need a closer they need someone who has passion and can coach. These guys are lost balls in high weeds. They dribble too much and no one wants to rebound. Stokes needs some coaching for he has gotten worse this year.....maybe its because he is double teamed most of the game but Counzo should realize that and have a better game plan to either free him up or have another big man to help out.
Sheesh....this team is hard to watch.

underthehill writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Based on their play this season, the only Vol who looks like he could play in the NBA some day is McRae. He has a similar build and game to JR Smith, somewhat of a career journeyman who is capable of having big games, who I think is with the Knicks right now. McRae only needs to get stronger and continue to refine his game. All the rest of them, including Stokes, have a LONG way to go make the pros, even in the higher European leagues.

Based on their play this season you may have a point..McRae is the best offensive player UT has ..by far..but he had 9 turnovers last night and would have a very difficult time playing defense in the NBA..based on potential..Stokes has rebounding skills that are not taught and could be a strong spot player in the NBA for that alone..I am amazed at what I have seen from Armani Moore lately..too soon to say too much but this guy looks to me like he is going to be special..he sees the floor and knows where to go with the ball better than any player we have..

carbonzip writes:

While I didn't like his mouthing off, Henderson looked like somebody determined to win. Tennessee doesn't have a player like that this year. Stokes could be if the refs would allow him to play.

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