Things couldn’t be going much worse off the court for the Tennessee men’s basketball team, which earlier this week was charged with 10 major NCAA recruiting violations.
Tobias Harris: “We have a lot to prove, still. We’re feeling better but, in my mind, we really haven’t done too much yet."
Results on the court this week couldn’t have gone much better, though, and the Volunteers (17-11, 7-6 SEC) hope that continues tonight against similarly inconsistent Mississippi State (14-13, 6-7).
Tennessee got a much-needed win Tuesday night at 18th-ranked Vanderbilt, and Georgia and Kentucky lost their mid-week games to Florida and Arkansas. The Vols are now potentially in position to receive a first round SEC tournament bye if they sweep their final three regular season games.
But was UT’s upset in Nashville a sign of good things to come or merely the latest uptick in an unpredictable season?
“We have a lot to prove, still,” Vols freshman forward Tobias Harris said. “We’re feeling better but, in my mind, we really haven’t done too much yet. I think we need to just continue to get better, because SEC play’s almost over, but we still have the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament — which we’re hoping to be at.
“As a team, there’s a lot more growing space for us, and we can’t get too happy over a Vanderbilt win. We have a lot of other games to face in front of us.”
Pearl was obviously pleased with his team’s late comeback against the Commodores, but he added the obvious caveat — the Vols’ halfcourt offensive performance in Nashville left plenty to be desired.
Defense and rebounding won UT the night in Nashville, and that’s been Pearl’s hope for this season all season long.
“Our identity needs to be with our defense and rebounding, and we need to continue to know who we are offensively,” the coach said.
Junior guard Scotty Hopson said the Bulldogs "play good against good opponents."
Scoring well until the final minutes and losing has been UT’s formula all-too often this season — even at home — so Pearl and his players aren’t going to complain about shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 13.3 percent from 3-point range and beating a ranked rival on the road.
“Offense wins games, but defense and rebounding will win championships,” said sophomore forward Jeronne Maymon, who re-entered UT’s main rotation against Vanderbilt. “We’re streaky when it comes to offense sometimes. We’ll hit 10 shots in a row, and then we could easily miss 10 shots in a row. That’s how our season’s been going so far.
“We try to maintain our values on defense, which is rebounding and toughness. If you do those things, you still have a chance to win every game, no matter how bad you’re playing on offense.”
But the offense must improve.
Defense and rebounding can win championships, but not without an assist from those putting the ball in the basket.
“I don’t think the players think anything is solved,” Pearl said. “It’s a work in process, and I think they know that.”
Senior guard Josh Bone sure sounds like someone who knows that.
“We’re not the toast of the town,” Bone said. “We’re not in first place in the SEC. Our backs are still up against the wall. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get into the NCAA tournament. If so, don’t tell us. Just keep it quiet as possible, because we need to play with that fire. We need to keep playing like that.
Vols' perimeter defensive stopper Josh Bone: "Our backs are still up against the wall."
“We’ve been having an up and down year, and we just want to keep rising, so we want to feel like our backs are against the wall.”
The Vols spent plenty of time Thursday and Friday preparing for Mississippi State’s offense — which is versatile and dynamic at its best — but they’ve also worked plenty of repairing a halfcourt offense that still lacks any kind of consistency.
“That’s the type of thing we’ve been going through all season,” UT senior center Brian Williams said when asked about State’s inconsistency. “We beat teams we’re not supposed to beat, and we lose to teams we ain’t supposed to lose to. They’ve got four capable players that could probably start for any team in the country, even some of the best teams in the country. We know what they’re capable of. Dee Bost, Ravern (Johnson), Kodi Augustus, Renardo (Sidney) ... I don’t think you could put out a better four than that.
“It’s just going to be tough for us. A lot of outside things are going on, but everybody in this Tennessee orange is just worried about Tennessee.”
And those worries are temporarily focused on the Bulldogs, who have lost to lowly LSU and awful Auburn this season but also beaten SEC East leader Florida and nearly beaten Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
“Mississippi State has played their best basketball against the best teams in the conference,” Pearl said. “You look at the national TV games they’ve had — ESPN or CBS — I think those kids have paid attention in those games, and ESPN is going to be here tomorrow.
“Dee Bost, he’s got to get good attention, but they can put four guys on the floor that you can make an arguments that on certain nights they’re as good as anybody at their position in the league.”
Maymon agreed with Bone’s assessment that the Bulldogs “play to their opponents’ level,” and both players — along with Hopson — expect State’s best shot.
“From what I’ve seen, they play good against good opponents, and sometimes they play not as good against lesser opponents,” Hopson said. “Obviously, they’re going to try to come in here and be fierce and attack us early. They just came off a loss, so they’re probably going to come in here hype, and ready to take an advantage and get a victory.”
Added Maymon: “You always prepare for people’s best. You never want to underestimate a team that shows sign on great skill and talent — and that’s what them guys have done, so you don’t want to underestimate them. You want to value every possession.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247