The Big Orange is 15-2 overall, 3-0 in SEC play and ranked No. 8 nationally heading into today's 5 p.m. tipoff at Georgia, however, and that makes adopting a new identity a lot more palatable.
Head coach Bruce Pearl promised in preseason that the 2009-10 Vols would try to run and gun - as they did in his first three years at the helm. As the season wore on, however, it became apparent that this is not a great transition offense. Then, when four players were suspended on Jan. 1, the Big Orange no longer had the depth to sprint for 40 minutes. Moreover, the Vols discovered they're a lot better on defense than last year, making a halfcourt game an even more attractive option.
When you combine all of the above, it's easy to see why a Tennessee team that was supposed to win games by scores like 95-89 instead finds itself winning by scores of 71-69 (last Saturday vs. Ole Miss) and 63-56 (Tuesday at Alabama).
"Our identity has always been pressure defense, fast break and high scoring - and we still could be a dangerous offensive team," Pearl said this week. "But our identity is becoming a little bit more defensive. We don't create as many possessions as we used to but we've been more solid. You have to be if you're going to compete."
Tennessee's players were understandably excited about the prospect of a high-scoring, fast-break brand of basketball this season. Still, they seem to have adjusted well to a slower pace that may enhance their chances of playing well into March.
"I think they've adjusted well to it," Pearl said. "I don't hear anybody complaining about not scoring more."
Senior post Wayne Chism, who has emerged as the team leader in recent weeks, adds a hearty amen to that.
"I think we've adjusted real good," he said. "As you can tell, there's a lot of players out there on the floor that are young. When we run fast we get a couple of baskets, then we do a couple of turnovers. When we slow it down and try to grind out a win, we stay calm and we're all together on the same page."
Sophomore wing Scotty Hopson might be averaging nearly 20 points per game if the Vols were playing a faster tempo. Instead, he's averaging 13.5. He says that's OK, though, because the defensive-oriented style of play is producing wins.
"Guys are just trying to carve our new identity," he said. "Defensively, once we get started on that side of the court, our offense clicks a lot better. Guys are really sticking to that aspect of the game, and it's been working for us."
Oddly enough, the players seem less concerned about the slower pace and lower scores than their coach. Pearl has led his league in scoring 16 times in 17 seasons as a head coach, but it won't happen this year. The Vols currently rank eighth among the 12 SEC teams in scoring at 71.7 points per game.
"I'd like us to be more uptempo," the head man said. "I'd like us to rebound and run more. I'd like to advance-pass the ball more. We're going to work to see if we can get that done. At the same time, I understand that this is the best way for this team to win basketball games, so I'm not as concerned about playing the way we're supposed to play historically versus playing the way we need to play to win."