Edge of the Abyss

It used to be that Kentucky was the measuring stick for Tennessee basketball but after two decades of decline the Vols are bracketed with Ole Miss at the bottom of the SEC instead of the Wildcats at the top of the conference.

The upcoming conference tournament offers little in the way of hope for a Tennessee team that hasn't won the SEC tourney since it was re-instituted in 1979. During the last quarter century the Vols have only reached the finals one other time along with the semifinals once. During that same span of time every team in the conference has advanced to at least one tournametn final. The last SEC championship Tennessee won was in the first year of the Reagan administration when UT tied for first place with a 13-5 league record. The last outright SEC title the Vols won was in 1967.

To say Tennessee is overdue is understatement on steroids. It's like waiting for the next great Studebaker to come rolling off the assembly line. Or holding onto that asbestos stock in anticipation of a rally. Sure it's possible the Vols could end a quarter century of frustration in Atlanta this week, but you shouldn't hold your breath — unless, of course, you're installing asbestos.

Obviously, Buzz Peterson is only responsible for what has happened the last four seasons, but his tenure stands out because it followed a four-year renaissance of UT's hardwood fortunes under Jerry Green. That upturn whetted the appetite for Big Orange fans and raised expectations for what might be possible with a young, optimistic head coach at the hoops helm.

The backlash of fan frustration is no surprise, neither is the dip under Peterson. UT had clearly lost momentum and focus during Green's final season while the talent level was several notches below what he inherited from the volatile and dynamic Kevin O'Neil, who deserves at least as much credit for UT's recovery as Green. With that qualifier established, there was no reason for Tennessee to hit rock bottom under Peterson when one good recruiting campaign with a well designed plan to succeed would have kept the Vols in solid contention for NCAA bids.

To this point Peterson hasn't proven he can evaluate talent or secure it. His heavy reliance on transfers is highly unusual for a coach looking to establish and maintain continuity and it has led to a transient mentality with players coming and going with alarming regularity. Only two players remain from the five-player class he signed three years ago. Also gone are Derek Stribling, Elgrace Wilborn and Andy Ikeakor. The best prospects the Volunteer State has produced the last four years are on out-of-state teams and Peterson was three years into the UT job before acknowledging that keeping such talent at home was a priority.

The only players currently on UT's roster that Peterson recruited are C.J. Watson, Stanley Asumnu, Dane Bradshaw, Major Wingate, Jordan Howell and Chris Lofton. Howell originally signed with Georgia but gained a release after NCAA sanctions were imposed on the Bulldogs and was taken by Tennessee. Lofton virtually fell into Peterson's lap considering the main competition was Eastern Kentucky and Arkansas State. Neither Wingate or Bradshaw has demonstrated improvement in two years on the Hill while Asumnu has been buried on the depth chart until just recently. Watson's game hasn't developed significantly beyond where he currently which is particularly disturbing considering Peterson is a former point guard. Brandon Crump has seen his game regress since his sophomore season despite adding strength and experience.

With an undistinguished 1-5 post season record (60-58 overall) at Tennessee and a potential second round match with SEC champs Kentucky looming on the horizon, Peterson is staring into the abyss of elimination and possible termination.

The Vols future is just as uncertain because finding a head coach capable of building and sustaining a once proud basketball program has become the most daunting and enduring challenge of the UT athletic department.

Therein lies the best argument for keeping Peterson. After all, he hasn't insulted fans like Green did by suggesting they go to K-Mart instead of coming to basketball games. He isn't condescending about southern lifestyle and accents like O'Neil was. And he does have a discernible pulse which you couldn't always be sure about with Wade Houston.

But are those reasons enough to retain him?

They probably would be if UT was truly a football and women's basketball school as Jerry Green suggested in a recent interview with the Tennessean. In that same interview he said UT and the Big Orange nation weren't supportive of the men's basketball program.

Somebody should check Jerry's blood alcohol level because Thompson-Boling Arena was built with the expressed intent of keeping Don DeVoe at the helm while allowing the program to compete with the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the college hardwood world. At the time it was constructed the Lady Vols had not won a single national title and the women's game was still in the infancy of its popularity.

Tennessee fans are often critical because they care passionately about the Volunteers whether the ball they play with is round or oblong. They demand winning teams precisely because of the success of UT's football and women's basketball programs have enjoyed. They turn out in large numbers donate generously and cheer loudly.

And they have a right to expect more from their basketball team than they have been given the last four years. If Peterson is the man who can provide that improvement so be it. Yet there is one question that should be asked while considering his fate.

What other school in the SEC would keep Peterson if faced with the same decision?


Inside Tennessee Top Stories