UT's slump continues

I guess I'm wrong – again.

I didn't think 18-to-22-year-old college athletes tired easily, especially with four or five days of rest. I didn't think well-conditioned kids hit a physical wall, even after playing a sport for six months.

But as I watch the Tennessee men's basketball team, I don't see the same energy, the same fire I saw three weeks ago. It might be there in spurts, but it's not there for 40 minutes.

The last time I saw it for an entire game was Feb. 22 at Florida.

It wasn't there for the last six minutes against Arkansas. It wasn't there for the second half against Kentucky. It wasn't there for the first 30 minutes against Vanderbilt.

And it certainly wasn't there against South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday in Nashville.

The Gamecocks' 79-71 victory further exposed a team that is vulnerable to dribble penetration and post defense, and has little scoring presence inside.

UT's Major Wingate and Andre Patterson combined for 12 points while South Carolina point guard Tre Kelley ripped through the Vols for 25 points. Kentucky's Rajon Rondo schooled UT with 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting. Ronald Steele of Alabama had 22 points and nine assists.

Allowing teams to penetrate and post up is a formula for disaster in post-season play, unless you can force 25 turnovers a game.

The formula for beating Tennessee, as we've said for weeks, seems simple enough: Beat the press, be patient on offense, get the ball inside and play deny defense on Chris Lofton.

South Carolina was able to do that.

I'm not sure if I was watching a tired or a sloppy Tennessee team against the Gamecocks. Maybe it was both. The Vols shouldn't have been tired. They hadn't played a game in five days. Isn't five days enough rest? And UT had played just one game in eight days. How long do you need to get your legs back under you?

No doubt, the Vols were sloppy. A team that leads the SEC in assist-turnover ratio had 12 assists to 21 turnovers against USC.

Tennessee also allowed South Carolina to shoot a sizzling 70 percent (14 of 20) in the second half. That's the eighth time an opponent has hit at least 60 percent in a half against UT this season, the sixth time it's come in the second half.

Either Tennessee is tiring in the second half or teams are beating the press for easy baskets. Or both.

The good news for UT is that the Vols will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years and likely will be a No. 4 seed, which will match a program high since the tournament began seeding in the 1980s.

The bad news: Tennessee has no momentum. The Vols have lost four games – each to an unranked team – in their last six outings.

It should help in the NCAA Tournament that UT will play a team that hasn't seen its style – unless, of course, the Selection Committee pairs the Vols against Pearl's former team, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Some brackets have projected UT as a four seed and UWM as a 13 seed.

For the first time this season, Vols coach Bruce Pearl seems worried about the state of his team.

``I'm concerned that we've not played well the last few weeks,'' Pearl said. ``We'll have to roll the dice in practice and correct some things.''

Pearl said he hasn't had a full-contact practice since mid-January. He's lightened up, fearing his team might be tiring and knowing he had no margin for injury.

But he also can't accept the way his team is playing. The press doesn't have as much bite, the interior defense is getting worse, dribble penetration by opponents has been too easy and rebounding has been a red flag.

That's enough to shatter a team's confidence, even a team that won the SEC East Division by two games and swept Florida.

``We've got to get more swagger,'' Pearl said. ``We've got get our confidence back.''

That's the mental part. The physical aspect is just as important.

``We've got to have more inside presence,'' Pearl said. ``It will not be a long stay in the NCAA Tournament if we don't get better play from inside people.''

TOURNEY INEPTITUDE CONTINUES

Tennessee is the only league team that has failed to reach the SEC Tournament semifinals since expansion in 1992.

The Vols are a miserable 7-15 in the SEC tourney, the worst of any school. Ole Miss is 8-15. Three other teams – Auburn, Georgia and Vanderbilt – have won just nine SEC tourney games in the past 15 years.

Contrast that with Kentucky, which is 36-4 in SEC tournament games entering Saturday's contest. The next-most victories: 16 by Florida.


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