Beast of a burden

Every guy with a "significant other" knows the score: You pay for the sins of your predecessors.

If one of your beloved's previous boyfriends watched too many televised sporting events, you'd better not tune in to ESPN when she wants to see a movie.

If one of your beloved's previous boyfriends cussed a little too much, you'd better not say anything stronger than "darn."

And, God forbid, if one of your beloved's previous boyfriends cheated on her, you'd better never, EVER glance at another woman, no matter how drop-dead gorgeous she might be.

Even though these heinous acts of chauvinistic pig-headedness were committed by your predecessors, you are stuck with the tab.

Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl can relate.

He isn't the reason the Vols failed to win an SEC Tournament title between 1980 and 2005. He's only responsible for the past four years. But the fact Tennessee's SEC tourney drought now spans 30 years is his burden to bear.

As he noted this week: "Getting to the conference tournament championship really doesn't mean a lot, unless you win it."

That's especially true when you oversee a program that couldn't "win it" once in 30 years.

Likewise, Pearl isn't the reason the Vols never advanced past the Sweet 16 in their first 96 years of competition. Again, he's only responsible for the past four years. But the fact UT is looking at 100 years of varsity hoops without sniffing an Elite Eight is an anchor around his neck.

It appeared that Tennessee would break its SEC Tournament drought last weekend. The Vols were impressive in dispatching Alabama and Auburn to reach the finals. They couldn't find the basket in Sunday's title game, however, and lost to a scrappy but less talented Mississippi State squad.

"Here in Tampa, up until today, people were talking about Tennessee basketball – the way our kids played and how fun it was to watch," Pearl mused afterward. "It wasn't fun today."

If Tennessee had claimed just one SEC Tournament title in the past 10 years, UT fans wouldn't have taken the loss to Mississippi State nearly so hard. But let's face it: Pearl is paying for the sins of his predecessors.

"We're disappointed we didn't win this championship," the coach said, "but it's been frustrating to continue to have to defend this team."

Pearl and his players face a similarly difficult situation this weekend. They must play a very good Oklahoma State team (22-11) in Round 1 on Friday. Should Tennessee win, it will face No. 1 seed Pittsburgh (28-4) on Sunday.

Most Vol fans understand that Tennessee's chances of winning both games and advancing past the Sweet 16 are remote. When your program has gone 99 years without making an Elite Eight, however, the pressure to end the streak becomes palpable. Many UT boosters will not be happy with a first-round defeat of Oklahoma State and a competitive loss to Pittsburgh.

Pearl is understandably concerned that making the NCAA Tournament field is no longer a big deal in Big Orange Country, especially when 20-win teams such as San Diego State, Saint Mary's, Florida, South Carolina, Penn State and Auburn were passed over this year.

"This is a Dance that is harder to get into and continues to get harder to get into," the Vol coach said. "We need to appreciate the opportunity to play for this championship, to have an opportunity to advance."

That said, Pearl understands that advancing is only relevant to some fans if Tennessee advances BEYOND the Sweet 16. He can't recall how many fans told him last offseason, "Don't worry about it, Coach. We'll do better than the Sweet 16 next year," but the number was alarmingly high.

"We don't appreciate what it is (to make the NCAA Tournament field)," he said. "We just don't. I appreciate this basketball team for what they've accomplished and I appreciate the fact we're still playing in March, with all of the things we've had to overcome.

"So enjoy the run because I'd hate to be at some of those other places."

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