Time Will Take Care of Vols Basketball Woes

When you do an about face like Tennessee has over the last 10 games, it's bound to invite close inspection from fans and intense scrutiny from critics who are often one in the same.

It also affords amateur sports psychologists a chance to exercise their real or imagined analytical abilities. One theory recently floated by UT's Buzz Peterson suggests the team may have reacted adversely to speculation it was only a couple of wins away from an NCAA bid, after an upset of Florida ran the Vols winning streak to six straight and overall record to 15-6 with six regular season games remaining.

According to Peterson's theory, the players' focus suddenly shifted from trying to get better each game to trying to reach the NCAA Tournament and the result was predictably disastrous. It's sort of like when Wily Coyote chases the Roadrunner beyond the edge of a cliff. His focus is so intent on catching his nemesis that he doesn't realize he's poised over the precipice of a lengthy drop and remains momentarily suspended in midair. Once he finally recognizes where he is, he free falls so far the impact sounds like a muffled thump.

Maybe Tennessee was so intent on catching teams like Florida and Georgia that they didn't realize the heights they had reached in the process. Once they did, the inner voice that once said: "I think I can. I think I can," was now saying: "What the heck am I doing? I don't belong here."

It's the type of thing that happens anytime a team becomes more focused on the final step rather than the next step. In some respects that type of mindset may have contributed to Tennessee's lack of focus in football last fall. The "Unfinished Business" slogan they adopted in a sense dismissed the effort it took to go 10-1 and be in position to play for the national title with a win over LSU in the 2001 SEC Championship game. Sure there were a lot of other contributing factors to the team's demise, but the lack of energy and intensity was evident from game one and it looked haunting familiar to the posture the basketball team has shown during its four-game nose dive.

The lack of energy and intensity shows on the defensive end more than anywhere and the statistics underscore that fact. During its swoon, Tennessee has allowed 80.3 points per game, seen opponents shoot 49.1 percent from the field and forced only 9.1 turnovers per contest, losing by an average of 12 points per game.

Compare that to the four games prior to the current dip when Tennessee captured road wins over Auburn and Arkansas and home wins over Georgia and Florida, allowing 62.5 points per game and 44.6 percent from the field. Three of the four opponents in that stretch had winning marks in the SEC and two were ranked, only Kentucky had those credentials among and the Wildcats South Carolina, Alabama and LSU.

Take it a step further and look at what Tennessee did in its last two home games against Alabama and LSU vs. the two homes before that against Georgia and Florida. The Vols allowed 65.5 points per game in victories over the high scoring Dogs and Gators while allowing these top 20 opponents to shoot just a 44.5 field goal percentage. However in its next two homes games vs. Alabama and LSU, UT surrendered 82 points per game and 52.5 percent from the field.

In the pair of home setbacks the Vols fell behind early and never caught up. They appeared to be flat at the start of both games and outside of a late rally against Alabama never exhibited the swarming defensive style that had characterized their play in home wins against Georgia, Florida, or even their hard-fought home losses against top 10 opponents Louisville and Kentucky.

Looking at the stats, it appears Tennessee suffered an emotional collapse after their monumental triumph over Florida. But there's certainly something more to it than the pressure of fan expectations, which ran at a fevered pitch following the Florida game. Even failing to make their first and much anticipated appearance in the top 25 this season didn't seem to provide the inspiration the Vols needed to stay on point.

In retrospect, Tennessee probably experienced a letdown following the Florida win which essentially exposed and allowed opponents to exploit its weaknesses. South Carolina presented match-up problems in the low post where the physical play of Tony Kitchens provided 21 points on an 8-of-13 shooting effort with eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Brandon Crump, who was often overmatched by the bigger, stronger Kitchens, countered with 10 points and four boards.

Ron Slay scored 23 points vs. the Gamecocks but shot only 10-of-24 from the field. More than in any prior game to the that point, Slay had the look of a man who was showing the wear of carrying the team on shoulders offensively and emotionally. The problem was compounded by the lack of production from the bench and consistency among the other starters. The Vols got 12 points off the bench in 47 minutes of play. Crump was the only other starter in double figures.

Against Alabama, Tennessee's lack of depth and size at guard was exposed as Crimson Tide starters Maurice Williams, Antoine Pettway and reserve Terrance Meade combined for 36 points. The Vols got 18 points from starters C.J. Watson and Jon Higgins on 6-of-21 shooting. Three guard Thaydeus Holden kept Tennessee close with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, but also presented a match-up problem with Kennedy Winston who had 15 points, eight rebounds and six assists for Alabama. Tennessee got only four points off the bench and just two points from Crump.

Kentucky kept the pressure high against UT's back court as Gerald Fitch, Keith Bogans and Cliff Hawkins combined for 35 points, 10 assists and only three turnovers. Holden, Watson and Higgins had 17 points collectively with nine turnovers and four assists. Tennessee did get 14 points off the bench, but Kentucky had 28.

LSU continued the beat of the back court theme when guards Collis Temple III, Toris Bright and Xavier Whipple scored 50 points on 17-of-26 shooting, highlighted by a 12-of-19 performance from 3-point range. Tennessee's trio of Watson, Holden and Higgins answered with a respectable 36 points on 13-of-22 shooting. But Slay had another off night, shooting only 7-of-18, including 1-of-7 on 3-point attempts, while committing eight turnovers. Tennessee got just four points from the bench and Crump scored eight points with four turnovers. The Tigers also presented a match-up problem with forward Ronald Dupree who was too big for any guard to defend and too fast for Slay.

Now Tennessee has to try and break out of its slump in the season's final home contest against a Mississippi State team that may well pose more problems than any of the four prior opponents. The Bulldogs not only have a veteran and versatile back court in senior Derrick Zimmerman and junior Timmy Bowers, they also have the league's most physical front court in center Mario Austin (6-9, 255) and power forward Michal Ignerski (6-9. 230). Moreover, MSU is coming in off a loss at Arkansas needing a win to secure a tie for the SEC West title heading into a Saturday showdown at Auburn.

The Vols are likely to respond better to the challenge in what could well be the last Thompson-Bolding appearance for Slay, Higgins and Holden, but they will need offensive production from Crump, a solid game by Watson and a boost from the bench to gain the upper hand. The team could also use fresh legs for starters that have logged a lot of minutes this season and appear to have lost some zip.

Ultimately, Tennessee's real rebound will occur next season when Watson gains some relief from point guard duties with the addition of combo guard Dane Bradshaw. An improved John Winchester could be ready to flourish at the two guard. Transfer Scooter McFagdon should fill that wing-forward role the Vols so desperately need while Major Wingate will provide points in the post and a physical presence down low. Improved play from Stanley Asumnu, Elgrace Wilborn and the addition of transfer Jerme Hendrix should add reliable depth off the bench. And another year of strength training should enable Crump to better realize his potential.

It will take nothing short of a total team effort to offset the loss of Slay, but the parts are there for a more complete squad, especially if someone steps up as a solid leader.

Even with its inherent shortcomings this year's team has provided a window on the type of basketball Tennessee fans can expect in the future with Peterson at the helm. The Vols should field a squad that plays hard-nosed defense, unselfish offense with good ball movement and excellent shot selection. It will develop the depth needed to push the pace on both ends of the court and control tempo down the stretch where so many close games are decided.

In time the program will fulfill the promise Peterson's second team at Tennessee has shown signs of this season and, eventually, it will make Tennessee fans feel proud as well as safe to return to Thompson-Boling Arena.

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