Tennessee won nine of the 10 games, and you couldn't blame the loss at Kentucky on the foul shooting, which was a respectable 15 of 21. Still, Bruce Pearl concedes that the Big Orange – like that Interstate stray – is bound to pay dearly if it continues to tempt fate.
"Will it cost us a game if we continue to shoot 62 or 63 percent? Yeah, it will," the Vols' head man said.
Pearl believes the key in foul shooting is to practice it, not discuss it. He doesn't want the Vols dwelling on their foul-line futility, so he says very little about it to his players. He wishes everyone else would do the same.
"We've really not talked about it too much but a number of people HAVE talked to the kids about it," he said. "I've had more phone calls, more emails, more people try to help me coach free throws in the last week or two ... and you know they're doing the same thing to the kids.
"It's definitely in their heads."
Pearl is tired of the topic but realizes it will not go away until the Vols' free-throw woes go away. He says foul shooting has been – and will continue to be – an emphasis in every practice.
"All we'll do is continue to provide them with volume shooting, put them in competitive situations in practice," he said.
After Ramar Smith went 0 for 12 from the line against Prairie View A&M on Nov. 16, Pearl took the sophomore point guard aside and fine-tuned his form. Since then, Smith has made 51 of 74 attempts (68.9 percent). Pearl may need to use the same tactic on J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism. Prince is hitting a frigid 29 percent (9 of 31) in SEC games and Chism a chilly 50 percent (12 of 24).
"I'll try to do with a couple of them this week what I did with Ramar ... that is, the only one they're going to listen to is me," Pearl said. "We'll make a few adjustments on their stroke, and that'll be it."
The head coach knows fans mean well but he wishes they'd stop trying to offer the players advice.
"Sometimes they get so much advice that it crowds their minds," the coach said. "They all worry about it because they care. They're conscientious."
Pearl said the Vols hit a decent percentage of their free throws in practice. As soon as they miss one in a game, however, doubts sometimes creep in.
"You've got the 'Here we go again' factor," he said. "As soon as we miss the first one ... 'Here we go again.'"
Although Tennessee's fans are frustrated by the ongoing free-throw problems, Tennessee's players obviously are far more frustrated.
"Sometimes, if you shoot a good ball that's supposed to go down and it rattles out, now you REALLY begin to struggle a little bit," Pearl said. "What happens when you miss a free throw is that you start to aim it, you start to guide it. You don't trust it. And, when you don't trust it, you don't follow through. You don't get good touch on it. That's how you get those bad bounces."
Tennessee's ongoing free-throw woes have managed to obscure the fact the Vols are 21-2 overall, 8-1 in SEC play and ranked No. 4 nationally. Clearly, the Big Orange is doing a lot of things right.
"We've won a lot of close games, so we've shot enough when we get the right guys to the line," Pearl noted. "It would help if Chris Lofton would get to the line more. We'll see what we can do – especially in bonus situations – to do that."
Although Lofton has made 61 of 71 foul shots this season, his coach believes the preseason All-American should've gotten another 20 to 25 free-throw opportunities.
"Chris is not explosive, so they just foul him all the time," Pearl said. "They just hold him all the time, whereas if he were explosive, boom, there's the contact, you'd see it, there's a foul. He's being held pretty good."
"We've got a couple of other guys that have come down with some flu symptoms," Pearl said. "We're trying to keep 'em all separated but it's hard when you're on a plane or on a bus. It's rip-roaring through the team pretty good."