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Vols not competitive, or too competitive?

Many fans have the same reaction to many losses.

“Where’s the hustle? How can they just stand there and take it?” Do these players even care?”

Many fail to ask something just as simple, though.

“What does failure feel like?”

Ask the Tennessee men’s basketball team that question, and their answers quickly settle the initial debate.

Yes, the Vols care. Yes, they're embarrassed. And no, that’s not necessarily going to fix a team that has lost four of its past six games — including embarrassing setbacks to Oakland, Charlotte and College of Charleston.

“It’s just very frustrating. It just feels bad,” Vols junior guard Cameron Tatum said after Monday night’s practice. “If your offense is not clicking, and your defense is not clicking, you just feel like every team’s just hitting every shot, and you feel like you can’t make one.

“It’s just ... it’s just very frustrating.”

Fans fume after losses. They storm out of stadiums. They angrily turn off televisions. They call friends and family to vent, or they sit quietly on the couch.

Players have more personal problems. Thousands in person, and sometimes millions on television, watch them lose. They, not their fans, must walk around campus after losses and deal with questions — or, worse yet, stares. They, not their fans, get nasty and often threatening e-mails. They, not their fans, drive around town and hear radio personalities blasting them. They, not their fans, surf the web and stumble across anonymous people on message boards questioning everything about them — even things that have very little to do with their performance on any sports field.

Their shortcomings are just as public as their successes. Their failures, like their celebrations, are more public than just about anything their fans do.

Yes, it does matter to them. It almost always does. In fact, many times, it might just matter too much.

“It doesn’t feel good at all,” Vols junior guard Scotty Hopson said. “I think the main thing we haven’t been doing is staying positive. I think we’re having too many emotions out there, just as far as the negatives are concerned, and we’ve got too many distractions.

“We haven’t really just been sticking to playing basketball, being ourselves out there, playing our game.”

But Hopson said desire hasn’t been the issue. At least not directly.

“I think guys are playing passionately,” UT’s leading scorer said. “We obviously want to win every game, and we’re playing hard, but guys ain’t trusting each other, and I think we’re too much worried about doing bad things instead of going out there and playing every possession how to win.

“Lately, I’ve been trying to get away from that, but I carry my emotions on my sleeve. I’m my own worst critic, and I’m always going to be my own worst critic, just because I want to excel, to get better each and every day. We’ve definitely got some guys on this team who get too down on themselves, but it’s going to take me and the rest of the guys on this team to surround that guy and carry him on and give him confidence.”

Pearl’s comments earlier in the day mirrored Hopson’s.

Perhaps UT’s problem isn’t a lack of effort, but rather improperly focused effort.

“Sometimes, you’re so competitive that you end up focusing completely on the end result, not the process, and you allow results to really bother you,” Pearl said. “You allow a play early in the game to take you completely out of your game for either the rest of the game or the rest of the half or whatever, and that really hurts the team.

“Sometimes being too competitive can be your own worst enemy.”

Pearl has no problem with people questioning his players’ effort. But, in typical Pearl style, he also wants those people to understand the basic human emotion behind it.

“If folks want to fault our effort — which they certainly can — part of the problem with our effort is our guys are so hard on themselves that they become their own worst enemy, and then shut down a little bit,” Pearl said. “And we’ve shut down a little bit. And obviously that’s not going to be the formula for much success.”
Tatum — who, like Hopson, occasionally admits to being too hard on himself — said the Vols will improve when they learn how to respond to adversity.

This group of Vols has proven it can play well. Ask Villanova. Ask Pittsburgh.

But these Vols, unlike most of Coach Bruce Pearl’s UT teams, have also wasted time feeling sorry for themselves.

And that, according to Tatum, must change.

“You’ve got to keep fighting. You’ve got to go down swinging,” Tatum said. “I’m not saying that we’re going to go down, but you can’t just continue to let people hit you in the mouth. You’ve got to fight back. You’ve got to continue to come right back at people. I think sooner or later — and it has to be sooner, rather than later — we’ve got to find a way to get this thing turned around.

“This isn’t what we came to Tennessee to do.”

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