Wiedmer: Just a lost game or much more for Vols?

Wiedmer: Just a lost game or much more for Vols?

January 23rd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

You can tell yourself that Tennessee's 72-61 road loss to No. 8 Connecticut on Saturday afternoon was nothing more than a single frustrating defeat in a 31-game regular season, and you might be right.

The Huskies look even better than their ranking every day. By NCAA tournament time, UConn might even become a No. 1 seed, which could ultimately make this the Volunteers' best loss of the season, since four of the previous six came at home against unranked foes.

But this also was UT coach Bruce Pearl's parole weekend. Sandwiched in the middle of his eight-game Southeastern Conference suspension, this was to be his singular moment to shine before the league returns him to society on Feb. 8 at Kentucky.

Instead, the Vols lost by more points than they did in interim coach Tony Jones's two defeats combined.

Admittedly, neither Arkansas nor Florida appears to be at UConn's level at the moment. But while the Vols rallied from big deficits to nearly pull out each of those losses to the Razorbacks and Gators, they fell apart down the stretch against the Huskies -- turning the ball over, misfiring from close range, more confused than confident.

To add to the tension, Pearl said to the media about junior wing Scotty Hopson after the coach's most talented upperclassman scored a fairly quiet 13 points, "We're inconsistent because our best player, Scotty Hopson, is inconsistent."

He later followed that comment with this one: "[Jeremy] Lamb scored whatever he scored [16 points] ... or Roscoe [Smith] scored [12 points]. Some of that is on Scotty. Those are freshmen."

This isn't quite on the level of Kentucky coach John Calipari showering Wildcats freshman phenom Terrence Jones with expletives not deleted late in UK's loss to Alabama last week.

But Pearl isn't usually known for dumping on his players, especially Hopson, who often appears to be a somewhat fragile soul.

Then came news that Pearl had indefinitely suspended freshman Jordan McRae for a violation of team rules. Given his 2.3 scoring average on the season, this is of no great consequence, but it can't be good news to a team that has been wildly inconsistent far beyond Hopson this season.

There's also this, a Pearl joke from Saturday that probably won't mean anything but has to sting acting coach Jones on some level. Said Pearl, "I coached the first half [when the Vols trailed by one at intermission], and Tony Jones coached the second half. Obviously, I did a much better job."

He also said, "It was fun to have some effect on the game."

But what effect did he have? Good? Bad? Some of each? Yes, his coaching surely was a big reason that Kemba Walker - the nation's second leading scorer - was held to 16 points, nine below his average. But did the Vols' seeming lack of energy and execution down the stretch also fall to the coach?

Moreover, Pearl needs to drop the attitude he displayed before this game, when he appeared to whine about the national media continually bringing up his suspension and that he appreciated the Big Orange Nation's support and similar disgust about the media not allowing to let the story die.

Anyone could understand Pearl's frustration, but a lot of people believe SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended him to save his job and provide the NCAA a reason to go lighter on him for the recruiting violations he committed and the lies he told the NCAA about those violations.

So if Pearl wants to blame somebody, blame Slive. If Pearl wasn't suspended, it wouldn't be such a story.

As for Saturday's officiating, which appeared to be tough on UT - especially center Brian Williams - the next time he catches a break as he did at Georgia, he might want to zip his lips about being "surprised they didn't call a foul."

Jones returns to the helm for Wednesday's visit from LSU, which should return UT to the victory column and heighten the discussion concerning what impact Pearl's suspension is having on the Vols.

"I think this is something we can still fix," Pearl said. "I really do."

But this thought from point guard Melvin Goins makes you wonder. Said Goins: "It's one thing to lose games, but we keep losing games we should be winning."

No matter who their head coach is.