Do You Believe in Buzz?

Remember the scene from the movie <i>Hoosiers<i> when Cletus, the high school principal who hired new basketball coach Norman Dale, admits to gnawing doubts about his choice when he says: "I"m trying real hard to believe you know what you're doing."

That expresses the feelings of many Vol fans regarding beleaguered basketball coach Buzz Peterson who is approaching the end of his third season at the helm on The Hill. Not that any of them were responsible for hiring Peterson. In fact, the person who did is no longer on UT's athletic scene.

However, the hire of Peterson was a popular one with the majority of Big Orange faithful when he came from Tulsa to Knoxville to take over for the iconic Jerry Green in 2001. He had the Dean Smith pedigree, he was Michael Jordan's teammate, roommate and best man. He was a high school all-American guard from nearby Asheville, N.C. and he enjoyed success in his first stint as head coach at nearby Appalachia State and he won a NIT championship in his first season at Tulsa.

In short, Buzz had the southern roots and congenial manner that Kevin O'Neil lacked, the youthful energy Jerry Green never had and the competitive drive that eluded Wade Houston in five years on the job. How could the Vols go wrong? Wasn't Tulsa a clearinghouse for high-caliber collegiate coaches like Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith and Bill Self? Didn't Tennessee pass on the latter two when hiring O'Neil and Green and live to regret it?

In a sense Peterson's success in the NIT was probably just as significant to his hiring as the interviews he conducted with Tennessee's search committee. Whether he knew it or not Buzz was essentially auditioning for the job every outing in the NIT.

The Golden Hurricane came into the NIT off a disappointing defeat in the conference tournament which cost it a spot in the NCAA, and put together six straight victories to win the championship. During their post season run Tulsa displayed depth, defense and offensive dexterity.

By contrast, the Vols had limped to the finish line that year following a midseason implosion that wiped out an impressive start. Tennessee was a team with talent that reached the sweet 16 the year before and compiled 26 wins. That was the high-water mark of Green's reign which was also checkered by inconsistent and erratic play. But for all the maddening contradictions in Green's four-year tenure there were victories and Dance tickets every March.

Unfortunately, the Vols rarely danced well at any post season venue and that was a big part of the overall problem. One and gone in the post season doesn't do much for momentum or fan confidence. And Tennessee basketball during that successful albeit frustrating span wasn't easy to love.

A program that Ray Mears put on the map behind the principles of discipline, defense and dedication to detail was experiencing success with a volatile brew of talent, tempo and troubling chemistry. By Green's fourth year on the job, the talent level was dropping off or failing to develop. And Green was no more grace under fire than he was a dynamo on the bench.

Clearly this was a team in need of direction. Just as clearly Peterson was a rising star with a good track record from a proud program that Tennessee wanted to emulate. Furthermore, he had a squeaky clean image and was strong on discipline.

Peterson inherited talent but he also inherited problems and a guard corps that was ravished by graduation and academic casualties. The Vols were also hit hard by injuries as the irrepressible Ron Slay went down in year one with a torn knee ligament. Marcus Haislip, who showed vast improvement under Peterson's staff, departed for the NBA the next season and Jon Higgins was ruled academically ineligible before the SEC Tournament.

This season Peterson has a team without a senior or a proven leader that is incorporating three transfers and two true freshmen into a mix with three true sophomores and only two upper classmen. There are only two ball handlers on the team and two shooters and point guard C.J. Waston is one of each. There is also only one low-post scoring threat which makes it tough to get a combination on the floor that can attack a zone defense.

In light of such glaring deficiencies, it's difficult to gauge just how much the Vols have underachieved this season. Obviously, the lack of competitiveness on the road is just as troubling as the mounting losses. The Vols have shown some signs of improvement over the last two games and there's still a chance it can finish with a flourish. In either case, more will be expected next year.

There will also be more expected in the next recruiting class with a couple of big-time hardwood talents in middle Tennessee for the taking. Unlike football there is plenty of basketball prospects in the state to support a national power. That was the case under O'Neil who built a war chest that included such players as Brandon Wharton, Tony Harris, C.J. Black and Charles Hathaway. Green followed with Vincent Yarbrough, Marcus Haislip, Harris Walker and Ron Slay. Closing the borders and cultivating in-state talent has to be the basis for basketball success at Tennessee. Once the program is on steady ground it becomes easier to reach out and pluck key prospects from beyond the borders.

Peterson also has another transfer and a couple of signees that might provide immediate help next season, particularly former high school all-American center Jackie Butler who is in prep school and still considering the NBA. The odds may be against Butler ever suiting up for the Vols, but It's just the kind of break Buzz and UT basketball is due.

With a little luck, a little seasoning, a little more talent and a lot of faith, Peterson's story may yet have a Hollywood ending.

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