Pearl nodded. "Yeah," he said. "That's a big part of it."
Feeding off their high-energy coach, Pearl's first three Tennessee teams hustled out of the locker room and didn't stop hustling until the final horn sounded. Players would dive onto the floor or lunge into the stands in pursuit of loose balls. They were a blue-collar team that their blue-collar fans could identify with. Small in stature but big in heart, they were lovable underdogs constantly looking to prove themselves. When they won, it was because they deserved to. When they lost, it was because they were supposed to.
The 2008-09 Vols, by comparison, aren't quite so easy to love. They don't dive onto floors or lunge into stands. They don't always feed off their coach's energy. Sometimes, in fact, they seem downright lethargic. They're white-collar players with bigger bodies and bigger egos. Playing for a program that went 31-5 last year, they are no longer underdogs. When they win, it's because they're supposed to. When they lose, it's because they deserve to.
Fans who loved previous Pearl teams because they hustled are not nearly so enamored with the current team because, rightly or wrongly, it doesn't appear to hustle for the full 40 minutes. Saturday's 78-77 loss to a mediocre Auburn team was a prime example. The scrappy Tigers appeared to out-hustle the taller and more talented Vols all game long.
Pearl conceded as much this week.
"They (Tigers) had 19 second-chance points; that's a big difference in a one-point margin game," the coach said. "Why'd they get 'em? Because they out-hustled us."
The coach quickly qualified the comment, however, by noting that: "It's not just a function of wanting it more or effort. It's a function of quickness. It's a function of smaller, shorter, quicker (players being more) able to get to those 50/50 balls.
"You can't just blame it on effort.... There's other factors to it."
He's right. Sometimes hustle isn't enough.
With 10.9 seconds left and UT leading 77-76, Wayne Chism raced across midcourt in an all-out attempt to intercept an inbounds pass to Korvotney Barber. Chism's lunge enabled him to get his hands on the ball but not corral it. As the 6-9 240-pound Vol junior tumbled to the floor, Barber sprinted to the basket, caught a pass and hit the game-winning layup.
Had Chism merely contested the inbounds pass, without trying to intercept it, here's what likely would've happened:
Barber, a 6-7 225-pound post, would've fielded the inbounds pass in backcourt running AWAY from the Tigers' basket. By the time he dribbled to a stop and passed the ball to a guard, the 10.9 seconds would've dwindled to maybe 8. Most likely, Auburn would've settled for a 3-point shot, an area in which it ranks 10th among the 12 SEC teams.
Chism should not be faulted, of course. He should be commended. He was hustling so hard in an effort to intercept the pass and seal the win that he crashed to the floor, leaving Barber unguarded.
So, after being out-hustled for 39½ minutes, the Vols lost because one of them was busting his butt in the final seconds.
How's that for irony?