Wiedmer: Is Pearl the Vols' problem or ultimate solution?

Wiedmer: Is Pearl the Vols' problem or ultimate solution?

February 20th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

KNOXVILLE -- Where's Tony Jones when you need him?

Do you not think at least a few Tennessee basketball fans are asking that question this morning following the Volunteers' 69-63 home loss to Georgia on Saturday afternoon?

With Jones serving as interim coach during Bruce Pearl's eight-game Southeastern Conference suspension, UT went 5-3. In games Pearl has coached since his suspension began on Jan. 8, the Big Orange now stand 1-4.

Admittedly, a coaching staff of John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski might have trouble going better than 2-3 against a schedule that included road games at Connecticut, Florida and Kentucky.

In fact, Pearl might have taken 2-3, and quite happily.

But the Vols aren't 2-3 under their head coach in their last five games. They're 1-4, their lone victory an uneasy 73-67 home win over South Carolina, which lost 90-59 at Kentucky on Saturday.

Nor did Georgia exactly roll into the Boling Alley looking like the collegiate version of the Boston Celtics. The Bulldogs blew a 13-point lead at home against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, being outscored 24-6 down the stretch. They'd lost four of their last seven games.

But as Pearl noted at the start of his postgame news conference, UT's early 22-7 hole against the Dogs no doubt fresh on his mind, "Georgia started the game like they were playing for their NCAA lives. We played like we were already in."

Conventional wisdom says the Vols probably are already in the 68-team NCAA tournament field. And in a season in which there seem to be no great teams unless Duke gets injured point guard Kyrie Irving back, but a handful of pretty good ones and a garage full of mediocre ones, how could they not be?

After all, the Vols have the No. 1 strength of schedule, a Top 25 RPI (at least they did before the Georgia loss) and six wins over teams in the top 50 of the latest RPI.

But they also now have six home defeats and four losses in their last five games. Now 16-11 overall and 6-6 in the SEC, they almost certainly will be expected to lose at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night and could also fall at South Carolina or in the home finale against Kentucky.

There's no question a 9-7 league mark places the Vols in the Big Dance, but what about 8-8 or, gasp, 7-9?

And just for argument's sake, let's tweak the tournament's selection committee guidelines for considering how a team performs when an injured starter returns after a lengthy absence.

Let's say the committee looks at how the Vols have performed with Pearl on the bench and without him. UT is 11-8 with Pearl on the sideline and 5-3 without him. Neither record is going to wow the selection committee, especially when Pearl is 4-8 in the last 12 games he's coached.

It's also the way the Big Orange have come up small that should concern Volniacs everywhere. UT trailed Vanderbilt by 17 in a comeback win, spotted Kentucky 19 in a loss, got into a double-digit hole in a loss to Alabma and fell 15 behind Georgia less than 10 minutes along.

Perhaps we should begin calling them the Deja Vols, since they keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.

Or as UT leading scorer Scotty Hopson said after a career-high 32 points Saturday, "We can score 100 points, but if we don't start playing better defense we aren't going to win."

Georgia won this game in part because post players Jeremy Price and Trey Thompkins largely avoided the foul trouble that plagued them in their home loss to UT. The two combined for 31 points and 15 rebounds while UT bigs Tobias Harris, John Fields and Brian Williams totaled 20 points and 14 rebounds.

But the Vols lost also because a team loaded with both veterans and depth scored a grand total of 13 points beyond Hopson and Harris on its home floor. They lost because Georgia shot 51 percent from the floor, pulled down nine more rebounds and shot nine more free throws.

It could be argued that they lost because these Vols bear so little resemblance to Pearl's early teams, which pressed and scrapped and clawed for every point on every possession.

"You either have it or you don't," Pearl said. "I told the team if you have more, it's time. This is it. I need more from pretty much everybody down the line."

They might also need more from him.