Bruce Pearl’s return to the Tennessee bench didn’t go quite as he would have liked.
His Vols came out sluggish at the start of both halves. While they were able to get a 19 point lead down to five early in the second half, No. 18 Kentucky responded with a 13-0 run of their own and Tennessee never got closer than ten points the rest of the way en route to a 73-61 loss.
The loss drops Tennessee into a second place tie with Kentucky and Georgia in the SEC East, a full two games behind No. 19 Florida.
Frankly, there wasn’t much Pearl was going to be able do tonight.
Kentucky was coming off of back-to-back close losses on the road, something that doesn’t go over well in Big Blue Nation. With a rival coming to town for a game televised on ESPN, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Kentucky was going to come out of the gates fired up.
And the Vols didn’t do a terrible job weathering the storm. In fact, they were able to turn a blowout into a game.
After Josh Harrellson scored at the rim with 5:49 left in the half, Tennessee found themselves down 33-14. The Wildcats didn’t get another field goal the rest of the half, managing just two DeAndre Liggins free throws as the Vols reeled off a 14-2 run to get within seven at intermission and right back into the game.
Melvin Goins scored the first basket of the second half, and all of a sudden Tennessee was down just five point with an entire half to play.
But that is when Tennessee’s achilles heel reared its ugly head.
The Vol’s biggest issue this season has nothing to do with their talent level. In terms of raw ability and potential, there are not many duos that can compare to Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris.
The problem is toughness and leadership.
Tennessee was pushed around inside by Kentucky’s big men. John Fields was a non-factor after picking up a couple blocked shots on the first possession of the game. Tobias Harris finished with ten points, but most of those came without the outcome no longer in doubt. He also finished with just two rebounds while Terrence Jones grabbed 11, five coming on the offensive end of the floor. Brian Williams didn’t play poorly — eight points, nine boards, five offensive — but, like Harris, those numbers were padded by some late-game possessions. He also allowed Josh Harrellson to go for 16 points and six boards, including a number of momentum-shifting offensive rebounds and hustle plays.
And there in lies Tennessee’s problems.
It wasn’t that they were outclassed by Kentucky. In fact, Tennessee did a pretty good job slowing down the Wildcat’s big three. Jones, Brandon Knight, and Doron Lamb combined for just 31 points on 9-25 shooting. Jones had half of Kentucky’s 16 turnovers himself.
But it seemed like all of their points were important buckets. Lamb and Jones were instrumental in building a 33-14 lead. Knight made four key plays — a tough driving layup, a deep three, and back-to-back assists to Harrellson for layups — that push Kentucky’s lead back to 51-33 midway through the second half.
Tennessee doesn’t have a stopper. Kentucky made a big run in each half, and Tennessee had no one willing to step up and answer. Hopson and Harris are supposed to be the Vol’s go-to guys, but they were no where to be found when Tennessee needed someone to make a play to stop the bleeding. Instead, the ball too often ended up in the hands of Melvin Goins. Goins is a solid point guard, but he’s more of a defensive playmaker than a guy you want facilitating your offense.
Kentucky also seemed to get every loose ball and make every hustle play. The key stretch of this game came right after Goins’ jumper cut Kentucky’s lead to 35-30 early in the second half. Twice, on one possession, Kentucky got an offensive rebound off of a free throw. After Goins missed a layup in transition, Kentucky went the other way and drew a foul on a fast break. On the ensuing possession, Harris missed a jumper early in the shot clock. At the other end, Knight came up with an offensive rebound on a missed three and scored on a layup. Tennessee’s next possession resulted in a lazy pass by Goins that led to a dunk from Deandre Liggins. (It should be noted that Liggins played one of his best games in a Kentucky uniform. He had 19 points, five rebounds, five steals, and three assists, shot 5-6 from the floor and 7-8 from the line, and played terrific defense on Hopson.)
All of a sudden a five point game turned into a thirteen point game and Bruce Pearl had to burn a timeout. A minute later, after Knight’s three pointer and two assists to Harrellson pushed the lead to 18, Pearl used another timeout and the outcome was all-but decided.
There isn’t all that much that Pearl could have done. No matter the coaching, no matter the teaching, no matter the influence from the sideline, if you don’t have players willing to make the effort plays or capable of making the big shot, its going to show through it critical moments.
Think about it like this — you can give Lady Gaga the best musical production team and publicist on the planet. You can give her a makeover and construct her public persona. But at the end of the day, she’s still a terrible singer with more nose than musical talent.
The same can be said for Tennessee.
The Vols are a team that is missing something. Call it what you want — leadership, toughness, decision-making, whatever — Tennessee is flawed.
And regardless of who is roaming their sideline, at the end of the day, the onus has to fall on the players.
Not the man in the orange blazer.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.