Tennessee’s toughness shows through despite distractions

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Tennessee got the big win they needed.

Scotty Hopson scored 12 of his team-high 19 points in the final 12 minutes as Tennessee knocked off Vanderbilt 60-51 on the road Memorial Coliseum. Its too early to say that the Vols have locked up a bid to the NCAA Tournament, not when a team as erratic as Tennessee still has three games left and could conceivably finish SEC play at 7-9.

Regardless, this was a huge resume win for the Vols. Vanderbilt is a very good basketball team, one that is good enough to get consideration for a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Why? They are 16th in the RPI, and RPI top 25 teams (based on the RPI rankings heading into Tuesday night) have lost at home just 23 times all season, including Tennessee’s win tonight. Pitt is the only team to have knocked off two RPI top 25 teams on the road.

That’s impressive company, and no doubt a star on Tennessee’s resume.

But this was more than just a resume win.

This has to be a confidence booster for the Vols.

They were out of this thing. Their offense looked atrocious, Vanderbilt was forcing turnovers and controlling the paint at both ends, and the ‘Dores had built a 42-31 lead midway through the second half.

From that point on, Tennessee dominated. Vandy no longer go open looks. They no longer got easy run outs. The Vols started making (much) better decisions with the ball, attacking the basket and getting to the foul line. A Jeff Taylor driving layup with 5:02 left in the game put Vandy up 51-49, but that was the last time a Vanderbilt player would see the ball go through the basket.

Vanderbilt collapsed down the stretch, there is no question about that. But a lot of their offensive struggles has to be attributed to the defense that the Vols were playing. It was a brand of toughness we haven’t seen out of Tennessee since their early season wins over Pitt and Villanova.

Making the win all the more impressive is the circumstances surrounding the victory. Bruce Pearl’s troubles with the NCAA are no secret. He lied to the NCAA about recruiting violations after they had caught him red handed, and at some point prior to tip-off, the University received its Notice of Allegations from the NCAA stemming from those violations and ones committed by the football and baseball teams.

Both Jeff Goodman and Gary Parrish reported that Pearl will be “unethical conduct”. With the internet and twitter abuzz with the news a good three hours before the game started, there is little doubt that word had reached the players.

Coming from behind to win on the road against an in-state, divisional rival is impressive without potential NCAA sanctions hanging of the coach, the program, and the athletics department.

Without any distractions, that is an impressive feat for any team.

For the Vols, it seems to have made them tougher, both mentally and physically.

Maybe these “distractions” are precisely what Tennessee needed to renew their focus and become the team that beat Pitt in Pittsburgh once again.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.