UT struggles to win outside of Knoxville
by Tony Basilio
It seems that Tennessee needs to get Clark Griswold, Chevy Chase's character in Vacation , to coordinate its next road trip. When the Vols take to the road this season they've had everything imaginable go wrong. It's not far fetched to think that Imogene Coca's body double could end up strapped to the top of the team bus by the time this road regular season ends March 3 in Athens, Ga.
I wouldn't want to walk my dog behind the team bus anytime soon. In fact, on the road, the Vols (already 0-4) have been a dog and in the process have turned the month of February, which appeared to be a quest for seeding, into one that has become a fight for their NCAA tourney lives. Make no mistake about it, Tennessee is officially on the clock, and its league's coaches will hold no quarter for Coach Bruce Pearl who masterfully navigated his way through the SEC in his freshman season. This year has been a different story. January's slim showing has left some to wonder if in fact this coaching staff and team are in a sophomore slump.
Some in his profession consider Pearl's antics prior to the Lady Vols-Duke game to be sophomoric, but it seems he will stop at nothing to promote his team and his game. This comes much to the consternation of the rest of the league, which has circled Tennessee on its schedule as worthy of vilifying. In 16 short months Pearl has gone from regional anonymity to a Yankee heel not seen in this conference since the days of Dangerous Dale Brown at LSU. At least three coaches have had unflattering things to say about Pearl that have leaked into the press, and another (at Florida) has quietly referred to him as "Bruce Naismith" among his coaching peers, an obvious dig at the UT head coach's perceived arrogance.
Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings got in line with John Brady at LSU, who you'll remember was overheard ripping Pearl last year after Tennessee lost in Baton Rouge. Recently Stallings was overheard referring to Pearl as a "jerk" and an "a** h***" in response to Pearl's decision to paint his chest before the Lady Vols contest. Stallings was actually quizzed by an usher a few hours before the Lady Vols vs. Vandy game as to whether he was planning anything "special" for the game. Stallings, Brady and to some extent Donovan's detracting of Pearl underscore the chasm that exists between him and the rest of the league's coaches. He's uninhibited and electric, and they're business people in Armani suits. He's everyman, North Knoxville, South Knoxville and surrounding areas. They're private school Belle Meade. He's an unwelcome interloper in their world. So much so that some are starting to wonder.
Some in Rocky Top believe the league from the top on down is conspiring against Pearl and his guys. A couple of questionable intentional foul calls, which altered a recent road loss against Ole Miss, only serve to bolster this notion. As does the fact that Tennessee regularly sees opponents go to the foul line at a much higher rate. The disparity in free throws, according to many basketball people I talk to, is more a product of Tennessee's inability to and lack of willingness to drive with the basketball.
With the Kentucky game in Lexington dropping UT's road record to 0-4 in the conference, this season on the road is akin to eating Hamburger Helper without the hamburger. Makes you want to ask if it's real ketchup.
Four times Tennessee has gone on the road, and all four times they held a halftime lead before succumbing in the early part of the second half. They were outscored in the second half over the four games by a cumulative 67 points.
It all started with an early January loss to Vanderbilt when the Commodores overcame a double figure deficit to beat the Vols on a last second tip. The game was highlighted by a bizarre incident where freshman forward Wayne Chism left UT's bench in a huff and had to be summoned back to the UT bench by Assistant Coach Tony Jones. Tennessee tried to spin an alibi around an alleged asthma attack, but whatever it was, the season hasn't been the same since. Tennessee and Vandy have headed in opposite directions, as the 'Dores are near the top of the SEC's East while the Vols are in the league's bottom third at the season's mid-way point.
The good news is that Tennessee spends much of February at home. Before they get there, though, there is still a ride on the road roller coaster called Florida yet to come. Say what you want about UT hoops under Bruce Pearl, but they're anything but boring. Especially on the road.
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.
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