Repairing the damage

With four losses in the past six games, Tennessee basketball is in a real fix. Still, head coach Bruce Pearl believes the problem is ... well, fixable.

Pearl admits that the all-out hustle that characterized his team's 7-0 start was lacking lately. Defensive intensity was lacking, too. So was 3-point shooting. So was the team's confidence.

He hints that the most critical element that was lacking, however, may have been time. Practice time, to be specific.

With six games and a three-day Christmas break crammed into an 18-day window from Dec. 14-31, Tennessee had just nine practice days in the past two and one-half weeks. Most of those were light workouts, so as not to overtax players who already were a bit weary.

With four days to practice between Friday's 91-78 loss to College of Charleston and Wednesday night's visit from Memphis, Pearl finally has time to address some of the problems that cropped up during the previous 18 days.

"In that stretch of time, because the games are coming fast and furious, we really don't have an opportunity to do a lot of practice and a lot of drill work," Pearl said today.

Because Tennessee has so many new players contributing this season, the coach said he spent a "great deal" of time on fundamentals in October and November. With final exams, the Christmas break and seven games in December, Pearl spent more time on preparing for opponents and less on keeping the Vols fundamentally sound.

"That was a factor for a new basketball team," he said. "It shouldn't have been but it was. With each game the drop-off became greater and greater, as far as the slippage on how to defend as a team ... and it came crashing down against Charleston, as we got terribly exposed."

In the 14 halves that comprised Tennessee's 7-0 start, the Vols allowed the opponent to shoot 50 percent or better just two times. Belmont shot 52.0 percent in the first half of Game 2 and Pitt shot 50.0 percent in the second half of Game 7.

Conversely, Vol foes have shot 50 percent or better in seven of the 12 halves played during the past six games. As Pearl noted, the low point was the loss to College of Charleston, which saw the Cougars shoot 55.2 percent (16 of 29) in the first half and 60 percent (12 of 20) in the second half.

Although the team defense has been poor lately, the coach says that's not an indictment of every Tennessee player.

"All it takes is for one guy to not be where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there," Pearl said. "And we've run into that."

Even more alarming to the coach than the recent lapses on defense are the recent lapses in effort. Since Christmas, he said the Vols are not giving "the effort that's required or the effort that we're used to and should have an expectation for."

As serious as Tennessee's struggle has become, though, it may not be permanent.

"It's fixable," Pearl vowed.

Because Tennessee depends on turnovers and missed shots to kick-start its transition game, the recent defensive lapses have negatively impacted the Vol offense. The Big Orange has shot less than 40 percent from the field in four of the past five games.

"We had some adversity on the court," Pearl noted. "We lost some games, we didn't shoot very well. What happened was, we made it worse on ourselves by losing some confidence in ourselves, in each other and in what we do.

"When you put it all together, you put yourself in a bit of a spin."


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