Perplexed by road woes

Bruce Pearl has never had a basketball team quite like this one. Tennessee's coach has never had a ballclub so terrific at home yet so terrible on the road. And the frustration on his face at a recent press gathering told you he's not real sure what to do about it.

The Vols are a pristine 14-0 in Thompson-Boling Arena this season, 6-0 in SEC play. They beat No. 23 Vanderbilt by 27 at home, No. 20 Kentucky by four. They beat Georgia by 11 without Chris Lofton.

But on the road, it's a different story – and getting worse. The 17-point loss at then-2-9 South Carolina was the latest entry, running the team's record to 0-6 in SEC road games. LSU (also 0-6) is the only other SEC team winless on the road.

South Carolina, for crying out loud, has a road win.

``I've never had a team as disproportionate as this,'' said Pearl, whose team hosts Alabama on Wednesday night. ``This is by far the worst road team I've had.''

What's bothersome to Pearl is that the Vols have gotten worse on the road.

The Vols first SEC road game resulted in a last-second tip-in loss at Vanderbilt. After losing on a late 3-pointer at Ohio State, they led Auburn by 14, had a one-point lead at halftime against Kentucky and played Florida even in the second half.

That prompted Pearl to note: ``We've played well on the road at times.''

But as the road woes have continued, Pearl said. ``It's become a thing.''

A ``thing'' as in a mental block, a ``thing'' as in a psychological hurdle.

``I think what happens is things get revealed on the road,'' Pearl said. ``They get covered up at home. But they get exposed on the road. It's handling adversity.''

Tennessee hasn't handled adversity well, as evidenced by the team's 15 technical fouls, three at South Carolina.

You could point to UT's youth. The Vols start two true freshmen – Ramar Smith and Wayne Chism -- and a third – Duke Crews – averages over 20 minutes per game. You'd think by now those guys would be playing more like sophomores.

Yet, against South Carolina, Chism and Crews combined for nine points after getting 34 at home against Kentucky.

Pearl said team leader Dane Bradshaw didn't feel the Vols weren't ready at Columbia. Bradshaw's take: South Carolina was hot and played relaxed. But it's easier to make shots when they're uncontested.

So, how does Tennessee go from a team that swept its East Division rivals on the road to a team that can't buy one away from home?

Several factors. One is youth. It's harder to win on the road with an inexperienced team. Florida is the only SEC team with a winning road record and the Gators returned all five starters from a national championship team.

Secondly, defense. The Vols allow 83.2 points per game on the road. The half-court defense, at times, has been miserable. And the press has yielded too many easy baskets.

Thirdly, breaks. The Vols could easily have won at Vanderbilt and got some tough calls down the stretch in a loss at Auburn. They also played at Ole Miss without leading scorer Chris Lofton.

The bottom line is: It's hard to win away from home.

Excluding Florida, SEC teams are 14-52 in SEC road games this year. The West Division is 6-30 on the road. Seven teams have won one or no SEC road games. Outside of Florida (5-1) and Kentucky (3-3) each SEC team has a losing road record.

Alabama, like Tennessee, has been a bit like Jeykell and Hyde. The Crimson Tide is 5-1 at home, 1-5 on the road with losses by 27 points at Arkansas, 21 at Vanderbilt and 24 at Auburn.

Alabama has played better on the road of late, losing by six at Ole Miss and by nine at Florida.

Pearl says Alabama has Elite Eight talent. But one of the Tide's key players, point guard Ronald Steele, has been bothered by a knee and isn't 100 percent. Robbed of some mobility, Steele has become more of an outside shooter. He has attempted only 38 free throws (making 33), compared to UT's Ramar Smith, who has hit 76 of 114 free throws.

Steele's lack of penetration has made Alabama easier to defend, even with talented big Richard Hendrix and Jermareo Davidson patrolling the paint.

If UT doesn't beat Alabama, chances of making the NCAA Tournament are diminished. One bracketologist said only one team has ever made the Big Dance with just one road win (not counting neutral sites).

UT's remaining road games are at Arkansas and at Georgia.

By the same token, three SEC teams have received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a losing record in league play. Alabama was 7-9 in 2003 and got an invite. Alabama was an at-large selection in 1983 at 8-10 and LSU went in 1987 with an 8-10 mark.

Alabama lost in the first round both years. LSU marched to the Final Four.

Since SEC expansion in 1992, just one of 17 teams that went 7-9 got an at-large bid, seven of 18 teams that were 8-8 got an at-large bid and 12 of 19 teams that were 9-7 got an at-large bid.

In 2000, Arkansas was 7-9 in the SEC but won the conference tournament.

Also, in 1985, Auburn won the SEC tournament after having a losing league record.

Pearl feels UT is a lock for a bid at 8-8. At 7-9, he's not so sure.

That's why beating Alabama is another must-win for the Vols.

KIPER HAS 3 VOLS IN FIRST ROUND

Mel Kiper Jr. predicts three Vols will be taken in the first round of the NFL draft. He's got receiver Robert Meachem going to the Jets with the 25th pick. He projects offensive lineman Arron Sears going to the Bears at No. 31 and defensive tackle Justin Harrell going to the Colts at No. 32.


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