Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl tabbed the Vols’ current stretch of SEC games as a chance to prove something.
On Tuesday night, UT failed its first test miserably against Vanderbilt.
In fact, it was the worst game I’d seen Tennessee play all season, on both ends of the floor.
The 90-71 beatdown signified a rocky start to a daunting conference schedule for the Vols. The most glaring stat of the night? UT committed 29 fouls, which translated into 43 free throw attempts for Vanderbilt. The Commodores connected on 37.
Meanwhile, Tennessee shot 13-21 from the line.
“We set a really bad tone,” Pearl would say afterward.
Pearl had better hope the tone hasn’t been set for his team in the thick of SEC play, especially considering what lies ahead in the next two weeks.
Four tough SEC games: Three on the road, one at home and zero guaranteed wins.
The difficulty of Saturday’s meeting with No. 2 Kentucky speaks for itself. The Wildcats, having lost only one game all season, have a sizable front line and a freshman phenom in John Wall with his name locked as this summer’s top pick of the NBA Draft.
Plus Rupp Arena has never been a visiting team’s ideal venue.
Next comes Georgia. The Bulldogs defeated both Vanderbilt and Tennessee in the past month and are more dangerous than their 10-11 record indicates. Georgia ran UT out of the gym in Athens, 78-63.
Tennessee then visits South Carolina and explosive guard Devan Downey, who leads the conference with 23 points per game. The Gamecocks are capable of upsets and proved as much by dethroning then-No. 1 Kentucky on Jan. 26 in Columbia.
Finally Florida will welcome UT to Gainesville to wrap up the Vols’ hellish SEC stretch on Feb. 23. Despite Pearl’s success against the Gators since taking the reins at UT, the Vols still needed a timely shot by Scotty Hopson to escape Florida by one point earlier this season.
For a UT squad fighting to stay in contention for an SEC Eastern Division title, the schedule is hardly a cakewalk. And not only is it difficult. As always, it’s important.
With Vanderbilt’s season sweep of the Vols (the Commodores’ first sweep in the Pearl era), Tennessee sits squarely tied with Florida for third place in the SEC East behind Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
South Carolina? It sits a two-and-a-half game behind the Vols in fourth.
Georgia? Try three-and-a-half games back from UT in fifth.
If I know this, certainly Pearl does. But does his team? Based on the Vols’ play against Vanderbilt, there’s no telling.
UT needs to shake off the sorry defensive effort televised nationally on ESPN Tuesday night. Vandy tallied 90 points and outrebounded the Vols 40-31, including 12 on the offensive end. The Commodores built their early lead by shooting 52 percent in the first half.
If defense and rebounding win championships, UT is nowhere close.
This is the SEC. Things aren’t going to get easier. In fact, as this schedule indicates, things may just get tougher.
Pearl’s team has proved doubters wrong since the Jan. 1 debacle that shook up his rotation (see Jan. 10 versus Kansas). But the Vanderbilt loss tossed more fuel on the fire of UT’s doubters around the conference.
And the next four games are a perfect opportunity to put out that fire for good.