Can Pearl lead the Vols to SEC Tourney success?
March Outlook's Been Bleak
by Tony Basilio
Now that Bruce Pearl has done the seemingly unthinkable once again in guiding the Vols to a 20-win season and thus back into contention for a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament, it's time to turn the tide. And I'm not talking Alabama here. Can Tennessee for once have more than a decent showing in the SEC tourney, let alone the NCAA's 64-team event? Face the facts. When it comes to March, the Vols lie down like a lamb.
Using the gift of verbosity, I'll try and find a word to describe Tennessee's showing in the SEC tournament since the league split into divisional play back in '92. Ah, let's see, the Vols have been miserable... no... that doesn't work... not tough enough... they've been deplorable... horrible... no... close but not quite... OK. How 'bout this? For the past 14 years, when it comes to the SEC men's basketball tourney, Tennessee sucks! Yeah, they pretty much suck out loud.
The Vols have won only seven SEC Tournament games in 14 inglorious appearances. Seven meaningless wins. In 14 years, the Vols have never--and I mean never--won two games in any one SEC tourney appearance. Not only have they lost, but they've fallen like Britney minus her fry cook hubby.
It doesn't matter who the head coach is at Tennessee. Even the magical Bruce Pearl isn't immune from that. Last year's first-place-in-the-East Volunteers did the J-O-B right in the middle of Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center, falling to lowly South Carolina (fifth seed in the East). Of course it doesn't help that Carolina got hot at the end of the season before eventually losing in the conference tourney's title game. That only bolsters the notion that UT would be better off not even fielding a team in the league's annual event. Tennessee is the only (yes, only) SEC team to have never reached the conference semi-final since the tourney split into divisions.
So, Pearl gets a pass for his first year at Tennessee, but now it's time to win in March. Better yet, it's time to at least show up this year in Atlanta! Since Tennessee has blown chunks in March, it was interesting hearing former Alabama Coach Wimp Sanderson's take on his mind-boggling success in the SEC Tournament during his 12-year tenure from 1981 through '92 with the Tide. Sanderson was able to guide his team to nine (yes, nine) final appearances in 12 seasons. To use a favorite Bruce Pearl phrase, that's "off the charts"!
So how did Wimp Sanderson get Alabama, a football school with much less basketball tradition than Tennessee, to become a lion in March while the Vols have been a little orange lamb. He joined me on the show a day after a recent appearance at Knoxville's Big Orange Tip-Off Club and offered a candid assessment of his success.
"When I was coaching in the league, the winner of the SEC Tournament was considered the SEC Champion," Sanderson said. "Because it was so important, I changed everything I did. I changed our sets. I put in a new offense. I altered our defense. I changed the practice approach. I approached it like we were playing a brand new season."
Tennessee Assistant Head Coach Tony Jones had me convinced recently in a radio appearance that Tennessee is poised to accentuate the importance of a good showing in Atlanta. "Our past performance in the SEC Tourney is not acceptable for this school. In fact, you can expect us to take it more seriously and place a priority on playing well. We are going play better in that event," Jones said. But how much better?
Wimp Sanderson still marvels at what the Tide accomplished during his tenure. "Looking back on it, getting to the finals nine out of 12 years is unbelievable for Alabama basketball. But once we got to the finals, it made a good impression on our kids mentally. The other thing was that while other coaches were lightening up on practice schedule, I practiced the mess out of 'em (the Tide) the day before the game. Everybody else was using a standard shoot-around and I went in there and had what I call a knock-around. Granted, this approach is dangerous because you always risk getting someone hurt. But that's the way we did it," Sanderson said.
But could Tennessee succeed with that type of approach at the end of a long season? Sanderson is an advocate of pushing teams at this time of the year. "Everybody always says that you don't want to change your approach late in the year, especially in a season where you've won a lot of games. I don't know how, but for some reason we decided to change our approach in the postseason and we were successful with it for 12 years," Sanderson said.
While everybody else is debating Tennessee's seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, let's put first things first. Let's for once survive to see Saturday in the SEC Tournament. In the spirit of Wimp Sanderson, let's push the envelope at year's end and turn the tide. Getting to the league's semi-final may be Bruce Pearl's greatest challenge yet.
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.