We keep waiting to be disappointed by Bruce Pearl's teams, keep waiting for that fallout period...but the Vols just don't lose very often these days, and when they do, they come off the deck throwing punches.
Against a talented and experienced Marquette team with three senior guards that could've given them fits, the Vols wisely put the thin Golden Eagles in foul trouble from start to finish (taking advantage of a night where the refs clearly decided beforehand that every questionable contact call was going to be a charge), shook off a slow start to score 48 points in the second half, and continued to display that they're more than Tyler Smith to the national consciousness.
With JP Prince still out, the Vols turned to a re-inspired Wayne Chism, who went career high with 26 points and 10 rebounds, including an incredible seven-for-seven stretch in the second half capped by a h-u-g-e three. That gave the Vols a lead they would never relinquish, forcing the Marquette players who hadn't fouled out to jack threes instead of doing what they do best, and the end result was another 12 point win over a Big East team.
Last year, when the Vols were winning games by a smaller margin than I thought they should and Chris Lofton was struggling (and none of us knew about his cancer situation), I told several of my friends that I was worried we'd make the Final Four and I'd not enjoy it along the way. This year, I know we're young and expect bumps in the road (thought not quite the pothole Temple was)...but there's a level of grace with this team that makes it feel even better when the Vols pull out another big win like this.
With Chism's performance tonight, you have to put him and Prince in that group of three who can each take over a game under the right circumstances. Combine that with heady play at the point (Bobby Maze is 4-to-1 assist/turnover) and a group of shooters that, while not Lofton/JaJuan (and who would be?), must be respected. We're still growing.
The W puts Tennessee at 7-2, with Belmont and Louisiana-Lafayette in Knoxville between them and a 9-2 mark entering 2009, where they'll face the most difficult month in Tennessee basketball history: at Kansas, vs Gonzaga, at Georgia, vs Kentucky, vs South Carolina, at Vanderbilt, vs Memphis, vs LSU, vs Florida.
Welcome, once again, to bigtime college basketball.