published Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Wiedmer: Pearl's Vols may be true contenders

One thought from Tennessee's 63-56 victory at Alabama on Tuesday night: Maybe it's time to seriously consider the Volunteers as a Final Four contender.

No, this is not a typo, brain cramp or baseless Internet rumor. When you've won seven straight games and knocked off previous No. 1 Kansas despite losing 40 percent of your scoring to suspension and dismissal, you just might be pretty special.

Keep this up for the remaining 15 Southeastern Conference games -- the Vols are now 3-0 in SEC play -- and UT might not only crack the Elite Eight for the first time in program history but also take it all the way to college basketball's final weekend.

Certainly, these words seemed comical on New Year's night. Superb senior Tyler Smith, dead-eye shooter Cameron Tatum, reserve point guard Melvin Goins and backup big man Brian Williams had been arrested earlier that day while speeding in a car that included alcohol, guns and drugs.

(Allow me a brief detour: Is anybody certain that Lane Kiffin wasn't driving that car at some point?)

Nevertheless, at the moment that the Four Flops were arrested, all the momentum gained from the previous day's road win at Memphis appeared lost, along with the most anticipated season of UT coach Bruce Pearl's five years on the job.

Turns out it might have been the best thing that ever happened. For one thing, it lengthened playing time and scoring responsibilities for the Vols' two most polished offensive weapons -- Wayne Chism and Scotty Hopson.

It also delivered focus to an offense that often seemed to stymie itself by not knowing who would take the shot. There was too much standing around, too much deferring to Smith, who never really seemed comfortable being the leader.

Beyond that, it forced Chism to lead in more than on-court talent and off-court giggles. Long seen by Pearl as having NBA athleticism, the 6-foot-9 Bolivar, Tenn., resident too often drifted in and out of games, occasionally brilliant but just as often perplexing.

But in Tuesday's second half, Chism scored all 11 of his points and dominated defensively in the post down the stretch. All this after Hopson lit up the scoreboard in the opening half.

Clearly, if the Vols were forced to part company with one star (Smith) and endure lengthy suspensions to three other key players, they wound up with the right four getting into trouble.

Of course, this week has been full of surprises from its first moments, beginning with Kansas State wrapping up Monday by knocking top-ranked Texas from the unbeaten ranks in a 71-62 finish that not only added K-State to the Final Four discussion but also left Kentucky (18-0) as the NCAA Division I men's only unbeaten team.

With outmanned Arkansas set to invade Rupp Arena on Saturday, UK should remain unbeaten at least until Tuesday's trip to South Carolina. But the Wildcats are just two young and the SEC too balanced for Big Blue to remain unscathed until tourney time.

Look for UK's perfect run to end at either South Carolina, at home to Vanderbilt (Jan. 30) or on the road at Mississippi State (Feb. 16), Vanderbilt (Feb. 20) or at Tennessee (Feb. 27).

A far more lengthy run that may soon come to an end is cranky Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun's career. The 67-year-old Calhoun took an immediate medical leave of absence on Tuesday for undisclosed reasons.

The only details were that it wasn't related to his heart or a recurrence of cancer, which he's battled three times.

Of course, given the whipping UConn delivered the UT-Chattanooga last March in the opening round of the NCAA tourney with Calhoun watching from a hospital room, the 11-6 Huskies just might rally again without him.

Yet whether UConn improves or not in its coach's absence, the Vols have come light years absent 40 percent of their offense.

All of which brings us to Kansas State coach Frank Martin after Monday's win over Texas.

Asked to comment on the KSU students not storming the court, Martin said, "I think our fans understand we're not trying to celebrate in January. They're going to wait around and see what comes the rest of the season."

Tennessee's fans might want to do the same.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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dalley said...

"But the Wildcats are just two young and the SEC too balanced for Big Blue to remain unscathed until tourney time."

Two young? Don't you mean TOO young? What, have you been taking writing lessons from the KNS staff? Geez.

January 20, 2010 at 12:11 p.m.
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