Pearl Faces Big Challenge

What's wrong with the Vols? That was the most frequently asked question by Big Orange fans during a football campaign that ended with the most losses in school history. According to UT's brain trust headed up by AD Mike Hamilton, the answer was Phillip Fulmer who was unceremoniously dismissed with three games remaining in a 5-7 season.

Now the same — What's wrong with the Vols? — question is being asked about Tennessee's basketball team. Not that Bruce Pearl's squad is in imminent danger of a losing season, but it is well off the pace set during his first three seasons on The Hill.

That's when the question being asked was, What's happening with the Vols?, as Pearl had an immediate impact and transformed the program into a big winner that reached the NCAA Tournament three straight seasons, including consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16. In the 2007-08 season, the Vols set a school record for victories and earned the first No. 1 ranking in team history after a historic in-state, hardwood battle between longtime basketball rivals Memphis and Tennessee.

For sure it was heady times for the Vols who won the SEC title outright and saw fans flock to Thompson-Boling like never before in the rein of five other head coaches. When UT added it's highest rated recruiting class ever, entering Pearl's fourth season at UT. For the first time the team was comprised of only players he had recruited.

The stage was set and expectations raised before the curtain went up, as reports on the new prospects' performances in Knoxville summer league play began to circulate, the excitement grew at the thought of a deeper, more talented, more athletic Tennessee team taking the floor in 2008-2009.

Now entering SEC play that question takes on more significance as the Vols attempt to successfully defend their crown. Four loses, including Wednesday's home setback at the hands of Gonzaga which ended UT's 37-home winning streak, have exposed the Vols as poor shooters, weak defenders, dispassionate competitors and indiscriminate decision makers.

The fact this group hasn't shown substantial progress to this point compounds those concerns, but it's hardly a hopeless situation. With the SEC season on tap there may be a rise in intensity as well as continuity.

The problem is still be as much about personnel and experience even with higher rated talent on the team. Pearl's formula is still sound but finding the right combination of players to execute it is another matter.

As things stand UT's problem is multifaceted. The Vols still don't have a true point guard. Bobby Mays is a nice combo guard whose game is better suited for the shooting guard role. Cameron Tatum and Scotty Hopkins are both freshmen with the size to play small forward but don't appear to handle the ball well enough to be shooting guards. Ditto for Rolando Woolridge another freshman who experienced a late growth spurt and outgrew that role. Yet he hasn't developed his post play because he was more of a perimeter player in high school.

If Daniel West had been eligible he was better suited for the point guard role as he is a pass first operator with excellent defensive skills. If West was able to play the point, Mays could move to the shooting guard while Hopkins and Tatum could rotate at the wing with Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism on the front line.

That more closely resembles the three-guard look Pearl utilized his first three seasons with JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton on the floor together. Dane Bradshaw gave the Vols a third guard. In season two Pearl brought in Ramar Smith to run the point and Smith moved to wing. That gave the Vols a couple of great perimeter shooters which enabled them to maintain some balance in the half-court game.

Now it's difficult to get two shooters on the floor at the same time which allows defenses to collapse inside and choke off the Vols post-up game. J.P. Prince while a good athlete doesn't handle the ball well enough to play the point and doesn't shoot well enough to play the two-guard. Josh Tabb is a good defender but his lack of offensive production makes him a liability in an extended role.

On the defensive end, UT's lack of experience shows. Whereas Lofton and JaJuan Smith played in the same backcourt for four years, Mays, Hopkins, Prince, Tabb and Tatum have only played 13 games together.

The type of scramble press Tennessee uses appears to be little more than organized chaos, but it requires percise timing and coordination that the Vols have yet to develop. Most young players come into the college game thinking they know how to play defense, but have relied on their innate talent more than proper technique and all out effort.

With opponents hitting at such a high percentage from the field there aren't as many rebounds to trigger the transition offense just as there are fewer forced turnovers from which to launch the uptempo phase of the offense. Forced to play a stagnant half-court offense slows the pace and makes it difficult to transition to a pressure defense which prevents the Vols from going on the type of 12-point runs that were so common in the past.

Essentially that's what's wrong with the Vols, but there is one more factor that plays into this dynamic. Pearl took over a team that had only known failure and the players were out to prove they were capable. Pearl was able to tap into the mindset to convince his players that anything less than maximum effort would not be enough to reach their goals.

This Tennessee team has yet to accept that edict of high energy and supreme effort. Until it does inconsistency will be the Vols' legacy.

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