KNOXVILLE — Bruce Pearl could have picked any one of several negatives to focus on Tuesday afternoon. But the Tennessee men’s basketball coach preferred to stay positive with his team during a spirited, laugh-filled practice in Thompson-Boling Arena.
The two-hour workout started with one stern warning from the coach — “Do not just survive this; compete” — and finished with a starters-versus-scout-team scrimmage.
Pearl and his players are focusing on the three positive games before Sunday’s 70-67 home loss against Alabama.
“Certainly this season has had its ups and downs, but I keep going back and focusing on those ups,” Pearl said. “I want my team to remember very clearly how we played at South Carolina and Florida, and capture that.
“Some teams never get to the point where they get to be playing their best basketball. We got there in March. Let’s try to keep things as positive as we possibly can.”
Pearl said he’s been “battling the demons” since Sunday, repeatedly asking himself, “How should this team feel about itself? And this team should feel very good about itself that it captured another (SEC East) championship and positioned itself to do some good work in the postseason.”
Consistently carefree junior forward Wayne Chism didn’t argue.
“I agree with Coach Pearl,” Chism said. “We’ve just got to move on. We can’t just stand here and think about how we just lost. We’ve got to move on and prepare for (the SEC tournament) and play our tail off to win this championship.”
“We stayed focus last week, and that’s what we’ve got to do here.”
There are plenty of potential postseason potholes for the Vols — such as their re-emerging free-throw woes, for example. UT was 10-for-22 Sunday. Alabama was 16-for-19.
“The free-throw situation has got to be fixed,” Pearl conceded. “We worked on a lot of things today in practice. We had lots of contests, and we ran a lot when we didn’t make them. But we still didn’t shoot them any better than we did against Alabama.”
Therefore, the Vols ran several up-and-backs.
“You see what we just did? Same stuff,” Chism said. “It was just like the Alabama game. We’ve got to learn to focus and make free throws, because missing free throws can get you beat by 20.”
Chism quickly collected himself.
“But we did a lot of good stuff, too,” he said. “And we had fun.”
Guard Scotty Hopson highlighted Tuesday’s work with a thunderous slam dunk over fellow freshman Phillip Jurick. The starters erupted with joy and good-natured ribbing as Hopson hurdled the 6-foot-11 center from East Ridge.
Even seldom-used freshman wing Renaldo Woolridge joined the fun, telling Jurick, “I’m never going to forget this.”
Pearl laughingly proved a point, though, whistling three starters for technical fouls and awarding son Steven Pearl six free-throw attempts. Steven made five, briefly tying the score.
“That was some fun stuff, but it still prepares for you the game,” Chism said. “If somebody can make a big play like Scotty just did and we celebrate too much, they can call (technicals) like Coach Pearl did.
“It was fun in practice, but it wouldn’t be very fun in a game. Coach Pearl would be very upset.”
Hopson declined to say whether the technicals were worth the punishment, but his wide smile left little doubt.
“It’s a game, and it’s supposed to be fun sometimes,” Hopson said.
Even minor roster changes from year to year can drastically change an entire team’s psyche, and the Vols haven’t consistently adapted to life without five of last season’s top nine scorers — four from the backcourt.
Chism said the Vols typically play better when “everybody’s loose but focused,” and Hopson agreed.
“When things are going bad, we tend to cry about things to each other instead of saying, ‘My bad,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I apologize ... I’ll make it up next time,’” Hopson said. “We’ve got to be positive with each other and let each other know we’ll make the next play.”