Again: What's happened to the Tennessee basketball team?
"Focus," senior point guard Melvin Goins said recently. "I think we were more focused (vs. Villanova and Pitt), valuing possessions and valuing the games more than we are now. Our focus is just a little off. We've got a long way to go but I think we'll get there."
Perhaps. The season is still young. But the Vols, 1-3 since a 7-0 start, haven't given a quality performance since they shocked the third-ranked Panthers on Dec. 11. Certainly, beating a mid-major Belmont team by one point on your home floor hardly qualifies as proof that all's well in Big Orange hoops.
"For us, some questions were answered ... temporarily," head coach Bruce Pearl said following the Belmont contest. "We've got a lot of work to do. Obviously, this hasn't been a very good stretch for us. But a team with less talent and character doesn't win this game."
True. But no one ever questioned Tennessee's talent and character. The question has been its execution. The Vols simply don't look very smooth on offense most of the time.
Scotty Hopson, who scored Tennessee's last nine points vs. Belmont to save the Vols from carrying a four-game losing streak into the Christmas break, concedes the point.
"Not taking anything away from Belmont but that was a one-point win," he said. "We had a double-digit lead and we felt like we should've kept that lead."
Pearl felt like that, too. He blistered his players' ears following the game, in spite of the W.
"The speech he gave us in the locker room definitely made clear that we're nowhere near where we want to be," Hopson said. "There's still a lot more work to be done."
Freshman Tobias Harris agreed that Pearl's post-game speech was not exactly positive. But the Vols didn't expect it to be.
"I'm not surprised," Harris said. "We won the game but that's not the type of win we want to have. Looking ahead to our future, we want to beat teams like that and have a secure lead in the last five minutes."
Goins wasn't pleased with the Belmont victory, either.
"It was a battle, a fight, another one-point game," he said. "Things worked out for us this time but as a Tennessee basketball team we really don't want these type of games."
Still, a one-game winning streak beats the heck out of the four-game losing streak Tennessee easily could be riding.
"Getting this win after losing three in a row brings us back," Harris said. "From here, our confidence goes up. We just continue to grow. After some time away we'll come back even more hungry."
Goins is hopeful, as well.
"It wasn't our best basketball but it was good for us to get the win," he said. "Everybody will come back (from the break) with sort of a fresh start - a new mindset, a new hunger, a willingness to play better, play together and just play our style of basketball."