Cutting it close

Check out these recent Tennessee's basketball scores and see if you notice a pattern:

Game 9: Charlotte 49, UT 48

Game 10: Southern Cal 65, UT 64

Game 11: UT 66, Belmont 65

Game 12: UT 68, UT Martin 62

Game 13: Charleston 91, UT 78

Game 14: UT 104, Memphis 84

Game 15: Arkansas 68, UT 65

Game 16: Florida 81, UT 75 (overtime)

Game 17: UT 67, Vanderbilt 64

Game 18: UT 59, Georgia 57

Clearly, the Vols are playing a lot of nail-biters these days. Eight of the past 10 games have been decided by six points or less ... six of them by three points or less.

Big Orange fans with heart conditions probably long for the days when you could head for the parking lot with five minutes left. Lately, you can't head for the parking lot with five seconds left.

Given all of the talent on the 2010-11 Tennessee squad, you wonder: Why don't the Vols win handily anymore?

Bruce Pearl has the answer:

"When you're not pressing, not creating possessions and not beating everybody on the schedule you're supposed to beat because you pressed them into submission, you're going to have a lot of close games," the head man said.

"We've probably had more close games this year than maybe three or four years combined because of the tempo of the games. We have fewer possessions, therefore each possession becomes magnified."

Pearl's early Vol squads used fullcourt pressure to create easy baskets off of turnovers. Because Tennessee was shooting so many transition layups, the Vols led the SEC in scoring with 80.4 points per game in 2005-06, with 80.9 in 2006-07, with 78.4 in 2007-08 and with 81.8 in 2008-09.

Because his last two teams lacked the quickness to press fullcourt, Pearl's Vols averaged just 73.5 points per game last season and are averaging just 73.7 this season.

Simply put: The less you score, the less likely you are to win comfortably. You'll notice that Tennessee scored fewer than 70 points in seven of the eight games listed above that were decided by six points or less.

Since the Big Orange no longer forces a frantic pace, winning tight games requires out-executing opponents instead of outlasting them. When the Vols execute well down the stretch, they win. When they don't, they lose.

Pearl put it this way:

"The constant continues to be defense and rebounding. When we play defense and rebound, we've won ... with the exception of the Charlotte game."

Poise and patience help at crunch-time, as well. Though lacking in some earlier games, these traits were evident in the final minutes against Vanderbilt and Georgia.

"I think that's because of the patience," Pearl said. "We can't have a wasted possession."

Although Tennessee had some scoreless possessions late against both Vandy and Georgia, the head man didn't consider them wasted possessions. They were acceptable because the Vols stayed within the framework of their offense.

"We showed some poise; we showed some patience," Pearl said. "We didn't panic, and that's part of growing up."

The Vols will need to be poised, patient and all grown-up Saturday, when they visit eighth-ranked UConn for a 2 o'clock tipoff.

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