It’s the first thing Coach Pearl mentions during every pregame speech. It’s written at the top of our dry erase board before the game and the second to last thing our players see as they exit the locker room towards the arena floor for our practices and games. “Defense and Rebounding Win Championships.” Although this is something that Coach Pearl has believed in since I played for him, this saying has become more than just words the last two seasons. It has become the pillar of our program. Our consistent effort and attention to detail in practice daily has paid huge dividends come game time over the last two seasons. Last year, we advanced further than any team in UT history in large part because of this. We went 27-4 last season when we held our opponents below 50% shooting, 26-1 when we shot a better percentage than our opponent, 4-9 if our opponents scored over 70 points but 24-0 if we held our opponents under 70 points and 16-0 if we out rebounded our opponents. This year has been no different. We are 5-0 because we are holding our opponent to a measly 35.4 Field Goal percentage and have begun improving our rebounding with a +7.2 rebounding advantage.
This week that fifth word (championships) finally became reality when we refer to these Thanksgiving tournaments. We have been in a tournament championship game in four straight years but have never been able to bring home the hardware. Friday night, WE did it. Our team defense, rebounding and toughness was the difference. We defended a Villanova team, at Madison Square Garden, in front of a “home” crowd and brought a championship back to you Vol Nation. NOBODY thought we would win. I’m not going to lie, it feels GREAT! I couldn’t be happier for our players. We have been through a lot together. I am happy for Brian and Tobias– New York kids whose families don’t get to see them much got to see them not only play at home and in Madison Square Garden but got to see them play well. I’m happy for Scotty, who showed great signs of toughness and aggression at crucial times. If he continues that, the sky is the limit for him. What can I say about Melvin other than what I have said over and over again? His toughness and leadership is invaluable. I’m happy for Cameron who has battled and overcome injury upon injury to play well. Our energy guys might be the best group in the country! John Fields, Steven, Skylar and Renaldo came in and played with game changing tenacity, urgency and purpose.
Where do we go from here? How do we handle a little bit of success? We’ve dealt with so much adversity over the last few months, do we step back into old habits now that we are feeling good about ourselves? Do we start reading the national rankings, seeing the ESPN highlights, hearing the “your awesome,” “the team is great” comments and allowing those to make us complacent? Or does the Indianapolis loss still stick with us? Does the fact that ESPN put in their article when referring to our win the statement “at least for one night” motivate our team? Don’t get me wrong, this tournament was a great championship to bring home for our program, our athletic department and our fans but I’m focused on moving forward and getting better. My dad always told me when I gave something my all and exceeded his expectations that the next time asked me to do the same thing, his expectations were going to be higher because he knew what I was capable of. I had proven to him before that the bar needed to be raised higher. Well our basketball team did that to me this past week. The bar has risen. I now expect our team to practice and play each game with the same intensity and effort they did verses VCU and Villanova. Middle Tennessee is next is next on the schedule. It’s time to start preparing and improving so that we can get win #6.
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