Friday, January 25, 2008

Strong to the Finish

It's three days later, and the loss to UK is still crawling in me. The Vols haven't had a chance to put some new and better memories in front of us since - that'll come against Georgia tomorrow night at TBA. And the SEC season is still quite young, and the Vols are sitting pretty well at 3-1. If anything, Tuesday's loss at Rupp is making it easy for me to use my third and final Sunday off for the 07-08 year on the United Methodist calendar, and take it on March 2, when the Vols will host UK at high noon. That's one for the SEC Championship, one for the SEC Basketball Tournament, and one for UT vs. UK in Knoxville, if you're scoring at home.

In the crucial final minutes of Tuesday's game, it seemed like the Vols were playing too much 1 on 1 and didn't get much of anything resembling a good shot, something Bruce Pearl echoed in some of his postgame comments. Some of that credit belongs to Kentucky, who it seems like is more and more buying into Billy Gillespie's defensive system.

And yet it's the Vols who, at times, look like the Kentucky of old, Pitino's Kentucky, with the press and the five guys on the floor who can all hurt you. Bruce Pearl is building a monster that's not quite finished yet, but the Vols had played better and better with greater and greater talent over the last three seasons.

And so this is again why it's so frustrating that at the end of Tuesday's game, the Vols failed to get it done. Even some of Ramar Smith's shots that went in really weren't good shots - it looked like the work of a bunch of highly talented individuals trying to get it done themselves, instead of meshing as a team.

The Vols are capable of putting their best five out there (which at the end of games right now has been Ramar, Lofton, JaJuan, Tyler and Chism) and executing - witness Xavier and especially the final offensive possessions against Ole Miss. And I think everyone really thinks we haven't seen the Vols' best ball yet, not just from Lofton's cold touch, but an all around dominating performance. Even the 20 point win over Vanderbilt didn't feel like all this team was capable of.

Under Pearl, you have to believe you'll ultimately see it. And the moral of the story in college basketball, where no one goes undefeated, is that you lose in January so you don't have to lose in March - that the Vols have to, between now and then, figure out how to play together and play their best at the end of games, instead of relying on themselves and/or taking ill advised shots (see Tyler Smith's 3). Between now and March, the Vols are clearly the most talented team in the SEC, and should have every opportunity to win the conference and to win it outright for the first time in more than two decades. Pearl talked often in the offseason about how his first two teams here played as good as they possibly could until a certain point, and then they just hit the ceiling and couldn't play any better. You saw this with the 06 team when they peaked by beating Florida in Gainesville, then arguably didn't play well the rest of the season against Arkansas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Winthrop and Wichita State (a run they went 2-4 on to close the season). The 07 team got hot late, finally started winning on the road and beat UK and Florida in Knoxville, but still lost to LSU in Atlanta and blew the Sweet 16 against Ohio State.

So can the 08 Vols ascend to something more, and keep playing better and better? The Vols are talented enough to play with anyone in the country on any night, and if Pearl can reign in some of the individualism and get the best offense working on the floor in the last five minutes, the Vols should still be in great shape. Losing hurts, losing to UK always hurts more, but the Vols should be able to learn from their mistakes on Tuesday, and take it out on Georgia starting tomorrow night. Keep getting better, keep going forward, strong to the finish.

By the way, props to Donte' Stallworth for representing the Vols in his pre-Super Bowl press conference today. I'm still pulling for the Giants though.

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