KNOXVILLE — Bruce Pearl’s Monday night message to the team was clear.
The Tennessee men’s basketball coach cleverly danced around the topic with reporters after practice, but the Volunteers heard different words.
“We can’t take coaching,” Pearl told the players during one particularly spirited rant. “We can’t take criticism. We can’t take teaching. We’re not accountable.
“That’s fine. It’s going to be over before we know it.”
Certainly the Vols’ season doesn’t look as promising in the aftermath of last week’s double-digit losses at Ole Miss and Kentucky.
Pearl tried to gently take back some of his harshest words from Saturday’s postgame news conference at Rupp Arena, where his team looked listless in a 77-58 loss to the Wildcats.
“I’ve just not been able to get us to overcome the handling of adversity,” Pearl told reporters Monday night. “We’ve been able to disguise it some, but it’s reared its ugly head way too much, when you see their heads get down so quickly, so easily.”
But, in Pearl’s words, that’s not necessarily an outright surrender.
“I used the word ‘quit’ the other day,” Pearl said. “They quit on themselves, quit on what we do, quit on playing with a purpose and a focus, but it wasn’t that their effort wasn’t there. It’s not that they don’t want to win. It’s ... dealing with adversity. It’s a 40-minute game. It’s a two-hour practice. You’ve got to battle back when things don’t go so well, and this team has not been able to do that all season long.
“Part of it is our leadership. Some of those guys struggle as much as anybody.”
Again, Pearl’s words to the team were different. He called the leadership “pathetic” at one point.
Junior forward Wayne Chism, this team’s career leader in minutes played, apologized for his lack of focus and intensity at Kentucky. In separate interviews, he admitted to walking down the floor a few times and standing outside the huddle during a timeout.
“The whole team wasn’t even in the huddle,” Chism said. “You can see Coach Pearl just talking to five players, and everybody else running around talking to each other. That’s not us. We’re usually all crowded around them, and we weren’t.
“And then Kentucky made some good plays, and we didn’t play defense at all.”
Chism said Monday’s video review was “embarrassing.”
“It’s going to have to change, or we’re not going to make it anywhere,” he added. “We’re going to have to change it in practice.”
And it will apparently take more than one practice.
Junior forward Tyler Smith, the SEC’s preseason player of the year, was clearly frustrated — one could day despondent — as he exited the arena Monday night.
“We’ve got at least a month left, but we’ve got to keep working, because we’ve got work to do,” Smith said. “Today, all I saw was Coach Pearl tried to let us have a little more freedom on the court, as far as offense, and it didn’t turn out too good.”
That was Pearl’s plan. Certain players cited this season’s slower tempo and lack of secondary fastbreak freedom as a hindrance. Coaches disagreed, but the players eventually proved themselves wrong.
“Sometimes you’ve got to let them see it, evaluate it and then let them think, ‘Maybe Coach was right. That’s not working,’” Pearl said. “Or you can make it work. It’s like, if it’s your idea, you might want to make it work.
“We’re trying all of that.”
Freshman guard Scotty Hopson, one of the few Vols who pleased Pearl on Saturday, said another players-only meeting might be in short order.
“But it’s not my job to call it in,” Hopson said, referencing his youth.
Chism said he’d listen to Hopson, who scored a team-high 14 points in Rupp.
“Scotty has got a reputation on the court that he can say something,” Chism said. “Sometimes (freshmen) can say something. We don’t rely on just us veterans and just the coaches. If they want to call a meeting, let them call it. We’re not going to have a problem that. We’re going to show up like we showed up for our meeting we had.
“Sometimes I think they’re relying on us too much. But they do look up to us, and we do have to step up for them, because once we play good, they play good.”
Pearl probably wouldn’t mind any patch at this point, but his words strongly suggested his preference for upperclassmen leading the charge.
“I was concerned at the beginning of the season that we were overrated, that we weren’t as good as we were picked,” Pearl said. “We lost five of our top nine guys. I was not the one hyping this team up. That said, I did not anticipate that leadership would be as big of a problem as it has been.
“Now we did lose three seniors, and I have no seniors except for Ryan Childress on this team. That’s an issue.”
Pearl said one request from then-senior Dane Bradshaw helped ignite a rally to the Sweet 16 two seasons ago.
Bradshaw’s question, according to Pearl: “Guys, for the last five or six games, would you treat this like it’s your senior year for me?”
“We don’t have anybody in those shoes now,” Pearl said. “Well, Ryan is, but Ryan’s not playing right now. Seniors make a difference, because this is it for them.”