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Commentary: Probe isn't the problem

When Bruce Pearl has had to make changes in the past, Tennessee’s sixth-year basketball coach has made changes.

The NCAA's recruiting investigation doesn't explain why UT isn't making shots, getting stops.

But maybe, just maybe, there’s no personnel move or philosophical shift that would make these Volunteers more consistent.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s why Pearl publicly criticized his team so sharply after Saturday’s 70-69 loss to Mississippi State — UT’s stunning seventh setback this season at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“We are not getting good leadership from within the team,” Pearl said. “We have some competitors, but we have no leaders.”

Pearl wasn’t done.

“The team does not play well together offensively,” Pearl said. “If I don’t call a play and put them in the spots they’re supposed to be in, we have a hard time scoring when making decisions on our own. We’re not playing well offensively together, and we haven’t all year. It’s been a struggle. The ball doesn’t move quickly enough, and the spacing (is poor), and the effort offensively isn’t there. When you work pretty hard defensively, you expend some energy. I don’t see that effort and that sharpness on the offensive end. We slop through things. The play continues to be inconsistent.

“Before the Vanderbilt game, we talked about some stepped-up performance, and we’re just not getting it.”

Pearl still wasn’t done.

“This is probably the worst shooting team I’ve had, field-goal percentage-wise, 3-point percentage-wise, maybe free-throw percentage-wise,” he said. “We’ve struggled. It’s been that way for most of the year, certainly the entire SEC (season).

The NCAA isn't causing jumpers from Melvin Goins and the Vols to miss the mark.

“I’ve been a head coach 19 years, and my teams have led the league in scoring in, like, 17 of them.”

Uh-oh.

But Pearl still wasn’t done.

“The energy of our crowd has been great, but it does not inspire ... it has not inspired our players to elevate their games,” he said. “Our players have not been elevated because of the home support. Maybe it’s because it is what it is, they are who they are and this is what they have.”

Still ... not ... done.

“It was a free-for-all on several possessions at one point in the second half,” Pearl said. “People in the stands, there are fans in the stands that knew more — the next time down, ‘Oh, there’s no way they’re going to launch a 3. They just missed three or four in a row. No way. Oh ... really?’ And that ball gets launched.

“It would be nice if they could make one of them.”

And ... done.

Trae Golden has been part of one of UT's biggest problems — point guard inconsistency.

Ouch.

Saturday night was, without question, as publicly critical as Bruce Pearl has been about his team since he’s been in Knoxville.

The timing of Pearl’s rant seems risky on the surface. Questioning his team’s leadership while the NCAA is investigating his program for his rules violations and misleading interviews leaves Pearl looking like a hypocrite to many UT fans — and a majority of non-UT fans.

But is that really the primary problem? It’s easy to go there, but should we?

Maybe we shouldn’t. I’m certainly not sure.

Pearl and his players have claimed to separate the ongoing NCAA investigation from their daily on-court routine, and it hasn’t seemed like a problem between the lines. Practices seem the same. Players and coaches, on and off the record, seem the same.

And does anyone really think a player wouldn’t listen to Pearl because the man lied to an NCAA investigator? Really?

I, for one, don’t believe that for a second.

Nearly every player on UT’s team, right or wrong — or for no realistic reason at all, in some cases — dreams of playing in the NBA. That’s why most of them signed with the Vols. A player on a losing team isn’t usually the best prospect, nor is a player who seems uncoachable.

And that’s not even the bottom line. Allow junior guard Scotty Hopson and senior center Brian Williams to explain that.

“We obviously want to play better and win more games,” Hopson said. “We didn’t come here to lose this many games.”

Added Williams: “I ain’t ever lost this many games (in one season) in my whole life. It’s hard to believe.”

UT’s seniors shouldn’t be bothered by the NCAA mess, but the underclassmen have every right to be concerned about the program’s immediate future. But it shouldn’t be affecting them right now. Were they going to transfer or bolt for the NBA before the season ended? Of course not.

So no, I don’t think Pearl’s missteps on the court have much — if anything — to do with his team’s inability to make shots and gets stops.

The issue is this team isn’t very good offensively, and more often than not it doesn’t rise to the occasion in high-pressure situations. It has plenty of pieces, but not the right pieces. It has plenty of finishers, but not a single above-average creator — how good do Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince look right about now? Anyone feel like rescinding some of their ridiculous remarks about that duo?

In short, I think UT’s problem is coaching-related, but not in the way many others have suggested.

Bad breaks and missed evaluations on the recruiting trail, not NCAA fibbing, have put the Vols in their predicament.

There is no Dane Bradshaw to slide from point guard to point forward. There is no Prince to slide from wing to point guard for the NCAA tournament. There is no Chris Lofton to bail the team out with a big shot to overcome a bad night.

With these Vols, what we’ve seen is probably what they’ve got.

That’s not just my opinion, either.

“If I knew what to do, I would have been doing it,” Pearl said.

Pearl and Co. have moved John Fields into the starting lineup, which has kept Williams fresher and more consistently out of foul trouble late in games. They’ve put senior guard Josh Bone on the floor over junior guard Cameron Tatum at the end of games, which boosts team defense and free-throw shooting. They’ve tinkered with the point-guard rotation to no avail. They’ve moved capable but inefficient sophomore forward Jeronne Maymon in and out of the lineup.

Aside from moving Bone into the starting lineup and seeing whether Tatum will play better off the bench, or possibly throwing their hands in the air and throwing talented, immature Jordan McRae on the floor, what more can Pearl and his assistants do?

What now?

Poke and prod, apparently.

We saw Pearl’s latest tactic Saturday night: Push buttons and hope for a response. The coach seemingly drew a line in the sand when mentioning that in 19 seasons as a head coach, 17 of his teams had led the league in scoring.

Translation: “I didn’t forget how to coach.”

Several players said they’d never heard Pearl like that in front of the media, and reactions were mixed.

Some, like Hopson and Harris, said they had no problem with it.

“I think he’s challenging us,” Hopson said. “He’s stepped up and challenged me, and I’ve bounced back from that as a player and as a person. I think he’s just challenging us as a team. Maybe that’s something we need. He needs to go at each and everyone of us, and challenge us individually or as a whole and say, ‘What are y’all going to do?’

“The time is now. We’ve got to step up. It’s no longer on (coaches). We’re the team that’s out there. They’re just putting us in positions to be successful, and we’ve got to ultimately go out there and do it.”

Said Harris: “I would be (upset), too, if I was him, just because we’ve been so inconsistent. We go out and beat Vandy, and then come play Mississippi State and lose to a team that we should have never been down to. He’s pissed.”

Others, particularly Goins, wondered if the coach had given up on his team and surrendered the season.

“I’ve still got faith in my team and myself,” Goins said. “We’ve still got games left, and I’m just going to try to stay positive about that. I know we need to play better basketball and go try to get better every day, but I’m not going to give up on us or anything of that nature.”

Either way, the message was clear.

If the players don’t respond to that, though, Vol Nation will simply have to hope UT gets into the parity-ridden NCAA tournament, gets a good draw and gets hot.

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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