With four scholarship players missing, walk-ons Steven Pearl, Josh Bone and Skylar McBee were forced to play more prominent roles. Eventually this improved Tennessee's depth. It also helped the fans identify with, and rally around, the short-handed underdogs.
With Cameron Tatum (four games), Melvin Goins (four games) and Brian Williams (nine games) serving suspensions, Tennessee's development was slowed a bit. So, instead of hitting their stride in February, the Vols appear to be peaking in March.
And timing is everything, right?
Consider Bruce Pearl's previous Vol teams:
- His 2005-06 squad peaked in early February, winning eight games in a row between Jan. 21 and Feb. 15. The Vols ended the season by dropping four of their last six, including an upset loss to Wichita State in Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament.
- His 2007-08 team also peaked in early February, winning nine games in a row between Jan. 26 and Feb. 23. The Vols ended that season by losing three of their last nine.
- His 2008-09 team never really peaked, displaying a mind-numbing level of inconsistency throughout a 21-13 season that ended with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.
One of Pearl's first four teams, however, peaked at the ideal time. That would be his 2006-07 squad. It was playing outstanding basketball in March but had the misfortune to draw eventual national runnerup Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament's round of 16.
Like the 2006-07 team, the 2009-10 Vols seem to be playing their best ball in March. Tennessee has won seven of its last eight games, including impressive performances against Kentucky (74-65 win), Mississippi State (75-59 road win) and Ohio (83-68 NCAA Tournament win). The Vols appear to be coming together at precisely the right time, although Pearl is reluctant to say so.
"I just think the team's come together all year long," the coach said. "We've had so many changes and so many adjustments that I think this team has come together all season long."
It didn't truly start coming together, however, until Jan. 1. That's when an ugly incident initiated a beautiful transformation. During the struggle to replace Tyler Smith long-term and his three suspended teammates short-term Tennessee evolved into a team. Since then, contributions have been coming from everywhere.
"We don't beat Kansas without Renaldo Woolridge's four 3s," Pearl said. "We don't beat Ole Miss without Josh Bone playing the last 14 minutes of that game. We don't beat Kansas without Skylar McBee making that (late 3-point) shot ... without Steven Pearl being a walk-on and being ready to accept this role.... We don't beat San Diego State without Melvin Goins having a career high....
"And I've not even talked about any of our stars yet. This is a team where just about every guy on the bench has made some sort of contribution, and that kind of stuff helps chemistry."
Ironically, Tennessee's winning chemistry can be traced to Jan. 1, when an unpleasant incident caused a totally unexpected chemical reaction.