Recapturing the magic

When Tennessee upset No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Pitt en route to a 7-0 start, then lost successive games to Oakland, Charlotte and Southern Cal, assistant coach Steve Forbes joked that it was as if a group of imposters had flown back from Pittsburgh on the team plane.

At least, everyone who heard the comment assumed he was joking. The quip doesn't seem so outlandish nowadays. That's because the Big Orange never recaptured the magic of its 7-0 start, going just 12-14 the rest of the regular season.

So, if the team plane wasn't hijacked by imposters, what was it that turned 7-0 into 19-14?

"I think we were real excited about playing," senior point guard Melvin Goins said of the 7-0 start. "It didn't matter the opponent ... we got up for every game and played together."

That statement clearly suggests the Vols were less excited about playing in the season's final three months than they were in its opening month. When asked point-blank if that was the case, Goins qualified a bit ... but not an awful lot.

"I didn't see the same excitement and mentality during some of the games, and it showed with our play," he said. "Hopefully, we can rekindle the thing and go into The (NCAA) Tournament on a good note. I think our guys will be very excited about playing in The Tournament. Hopefully, we'll come out ready to play good basketball."

Senior center Brian Williams thought the 7-0 start was more about being efficient offensively than being emotional.

"I think the biggest difference is getting to the line," he said. "I think we was first in the country at that time, and we're last in the SEC now. And the 3-point shots was falling. If any team is doing that (shooting foul shots and making 3s) it's going to be successful."

Williams may have a point. The Vols routinely got to the free-throw line and routinely got 3-pointers to fall in November and early December. Thereafter ... well, not so much. Check out these stats:

After hitting 35.5 percent (39 of 110) from 3-point range in Games 1-7, Tennessee hit just 29.2 percent (133 of 455) in Games 8-33.

After shooting 226 foul shots in Games 1-7 (an average of 32.3 per game), the Vols shot just 528 in Games 8-33 (an average of 20.3 per game).

A passive offense could be blamed for both statistical downturns. Failing to attack the basket results in fewer free throws. It also takes away the inside/out game that produces better looks from 3-point range. Williams thinks a return to the aggressive offensive mindset of Games 1-7 might get Tennessee's attack back on track.

"It's things we got away from," he said. "If we do get back on that page I think we can be a team to be reckoned with and we can definitely get to the Final Four."

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