CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tennessee’s season started down a topsy-turvy path well before men’s athletic director Mike Hamilton’s mid-week comments about coach Bruce Pearl’s uncertain future.
It's been a frustrating season for senior point guard Melvin Goins and the Vols. Will it end today?
One year after entering the NCAA tournament with an entire team pulling in one direction, UT is a confusing bunch that lacks cohesiveness, calming influences and a clear identity.
Those aren’t just my thoughts, by the way.
Many Volunteers admit similar feelings.
“One of our biggest problems this year has been we’ve been playing against ourselves sometimes, instead of our opponent,” sophomore guard Skylar McBee said. “We need to come together and realize it’s Tennessee versus Michigan, not Tennessee versus Tennessee. We’re going to have to put all issues aside and come together as a team and have everybody slip into their roles and play them well.”
So far as we know, these Vols have solid chemistry off the court. On the court has been a different story. For whatever reasons — and there are probably at least a few — this team hasn’t put together a stretch of consistently solid play in weeks.
UT hasn’t won back-to-back games since Jan. 29 and Feb. 3. The Vols’ past eight games have gone win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Without a 7-0 start start that included wins over Big East powers Pittsburgh and Villanova away from Knoxville, they probably wouldn’t even be in the NCAA tournament.
But they are an NCAA tournament team.
And they have been given a clean slate.
Senior Josh Bone and Bruce Pearl shared his happy moment after one of UT's better recent efforts — an SEC tournament win over Arkansas.
But not every player is positive that all of their issues were solved in the past week.
Asked if every Vol could come to grips with and then properly execute his role for a postseason push, senior Josh Bone shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not sure if the team can do that,” Bone said. “I know I can, personally, but for us to move forward and go far in the tournament, I think a lot of us need to do that. Every single one of us needs to know what we do well and do those things to the best of our ability. At the end of the day, it’s not about personal goals. It’s about the team.
“Last year we got a lot of credit for going to the Elite Eight, and that was because everybody bought in to what we was trying to do. We played defense, we went to our guns on the offensive end and they refused to be stopped. Everybody played their part, basically.
“That’s what we need to do this year, right now.”
Last season was different for several reasons, and only one of them was the program’s lack of an NCAA investigation and abundance of coaching controversy.
The 2009-10 Vols, despite losing four players — one permanently — to a New Year’s Day arrest, knew their roles and almost always had answers.
“Obviously, things were more clearly defined (last season),” embattled UT coach Bruce Pearl said.
Even if Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris hit their averages, UT needs slumping Cameron Tatum to find his early-season form this weekend.
Four-year starter Wayne Chism knew what to do in the post. Second-year starting point guard Bobby Maze knew what to do with the ball in his hands. Dynamic, experienced wing J.P. Prince trusted his teammates to do their jobs, leaving him freedom to make big plays on both ends of the floor.
Were they perfect? Absolutely not.
But were they good enough to compete for championships? Absolutely.
Especially in hindsight, those slightly-flawed, incessantly-flamboyant seniors were reliable in their own unique ways. And they were winners. They didn’t scare easily, even in the toughest of times, and it showed.
But they’re also out of eligibility.
And everyone is still waiting on this team — a team with seemingly comparable talent but incomparable experience and toughness — to find its path.
“That (understanding) was the case with last year’s team. Guys stuck to their strengths,” said junior guard Scotty Hopson, whose transformation from Robin to Batman hasn’t been the smoothest. “We all stuck to our strengths last year, and we did the things out there on the basketball floor that we needed to do. I think that’s one thing we’ve stressed this week, is everyone do their jobs, stick to their strengths and played their roles each and every night.
“If each and every one of us contributes, we’ll be fine.”
Melvin Goins and Scotty Hopson don't like walking off courts like this, but what can be done at this point to prevent them?
Will that happen, though? Can it possibly happen, considering everything that’s happened with this team in the past seven months?
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Hopson said. “This team can relish this opportunity and take advantage of it. It’s going to be a good stretch for us, and we’re looking forward to taking it all the way.”
Those lofty goals have been there all season. Last season’s finish combined with this season’s start had many considering UT a Final Four contender in mid-December.
Now it’s mid-March, and the Vols are 12-14 since their 7-0 start.
And they still don’t seem to know exactly what happened. Frustrations have festered.
The Vols had months to solve this. Then they had weeks. Then they had days.
Now they have minutes.
Soon they will have seconds.
“When we play our best, we’re tough,” said junior guard Cameron Tatum, whose hot start but recent inconsistencies have mirrored much of the team’s results.
“Talent-wise, we’re one of the best teams in the country, and when we put all that talent together, and everybody plays and everyone contributes, we’re really good,” Tatum continued. “Everybody knows know that, including us. We know that more so than anybody, and I think that’s what’s so frustrating about this whole thing. We know more than anybody what we should be doing. The way we worked out all summer long, and how excited we were coming into the season, and the way we took off, everything was just looking how we knew it was supposed to be. We thought it was going to be like that all season long, because we had that much confidence in each other.
“Us getting that confidence back with each other out there on that floor, that’s going to be what’s really key for us.”
Freshman forward Tobias Harris — who, like Hopson, might declare for this summer’s NBA Draft — said the past three months have “been a struggle.”
But it’s a struggle they put on themselves, the stunningly mature youngster added.
“I thought it was a surprise, but not too much, because when we won those games, I thought we got really relaxed,” Harris said. “I thought we just stopped focusing on what really got us there, and that was playing together and playing as a team. That’s why I thought we went on a little winning (streak), winning seven games, playing like we should, to not playing like we should. Then we lost those games. To me, it was a surprise, because I didn’t think it was going to happen to us — but it did, so we’re in the position we’re in now.
“I think now we realize it’s a new season, we’re zero-and-zero, and we’ve only got a couple of games to really make a run and really just come together and win it all.”
They might have a couple of games to “really” get going. They might not need to play their best to beat Michigan.
But relying on that is never a safe bet this time of year. Not when you’re a No. 9 seed.
The safe play, according to Bone, is “everybody buying into everything we do.”
“It’s now or never,” Bone said. “We have a lot of leaders on the team who will speak up if somebody’s on the wrong page or whatever, but we all need to come together and understand we all have just one goal, and that’s to win the first game, and then go to the next game and the next game and the next game and keep going farther in the tournament. We can’t do that with attitudes and egos and all that. We have to put everything aside.”
But will it happen?
“We’re about to find out,” Bone said.
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247