Not So Enchanting

Calling Tennessee's latest road disaster a train wreck would falsely imply Buzz Peterson's Vols were ever on track in Saturday's game. A more accurate description would be: How UT spit the bit in the Pit.

Needing big games from his most experienced veterans, Peterson got sensational shooting from a true freshman and exceptionally poor play from a pair of three-year starters — Brandon Crump and C.J. Watson — who scored three points each.

Crump's disappearing act comes one week after a career-high 26-point performance against Xavier and underscores the level of inconsistency that has plagued the basketball program in recent years. Likewise, Watson looked like anything other than a seasoned floor leader and, predictably, the Vols drifted aimlessly under his direction. Together the battled-tested duo connected on 1-of-9 from the field and had six turnovers against two assists in 65 minutes of play.

If not for some outstanding outside shooting by rookie Chris Lofton, the Lobos may have very well doubled their winning margin in the 77-58 rout. Lofton scored a team-high 19 points, connecting on 7-of-8 field goals including a perfect 5-of-5 from three-point range. Take Lofton's contributions away and UT hit only 12-of-38 from the field.

Other than that one encouraging outing, by a player who virtually fell into Tennessee's lap last spring, there was little about the Vols effort to make one believe this team is an NIT qualifier much less an NCAA Tournament contender. The Vols led briefly early in the game before being overtaken in sudden, familiar fashion and left lingering in the Lobo's rearview mirror.

UT trailed 29-17 at the half and anytime the Vols closed to within sniffing range of the lead in the second stanza they choked on New Mexico State's exhaust fumes. There were no signs of leadership in word or deed when the Vols were most in need. In short: It was a carbon copy of almost every road game this squad has played the last two seasons while going 3-13 away from Knoxville.

Even if you give Tennessee the benefit of the doubt and say they didn't quit because they closed to within four points midway in the second half, after trailing by 12 at intermission, it is fair to suggest they stopped playing anytime they got close enough for the game to classified as competitive.

As a purely external observation, admittedly knowing little of UT's practice personality or work habits, it almost looks like the Vols are afraid they're going to make their opponent mad by playing hard. Are they bothered by the reactions of hostile crowds or are they afraid of success? Do they lack confidence or do they simply lack lack the competitive heart to contend when placed out of their comfort zone?

Whatever the reason this is a squad that plays soft, lacks intensity and has no one who seems capable of setting an emotional tone for his teammates to follow. Crump's disappearing act is particularly disappointing since he's a fifth-year senior who has packed 50 pounds on his slender frame since arriving on campus in 2000. The only holdover from the Jerry Green era — the last of Jerry's kids if you will — Crump has become the paradox that symbolizes Peterson's four-year run.

Junior C.J. Watson appears to play less like a point guard each season since signing with Tennessee in the class of 2002. Watson is better in transition than he is breaking down defenses in the half-court game, but UT isn't a transition team. He finished with three points, two assists and three turnovers vs. the Lobos.

Tennessee got exactly nine points from its post game and three of those were on a trey by Andre Patterson. Without a consistent inside presence, the Vols have no chance against a good team.

One of the biggest problems, as I see it, is that Tennessee doesn't have an identity. The Vols don't have a strength to play to, no positive personality that surfaces when the team's in trouble. Defense is a traditional foundation of UT sports but the men's basketball team is far from sound in this hardwood essential. Example: the Vols allowed New Mexico State to shoot 64 percent in the decisive second half.

For future reference: Any prospect signed by Tennessee or any transfer accepted should be able to play great defense and should possess the mental toughness to compete in the SEC.

Otherwise, they are destined to fail and the team will never be embraced by Big Orange fans.

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