Season Over

Six straight NCAA Tourney’s, two SEC championships, two Sweet Sixteen’s, an Elite Eight appearance, the #1 National ranking, players graduating, fan support and the relationships and friendships with the players, staff members and supporters are the things that I’ve been thinking about to help me through the last 24 hours. I beam with pride when thinking about these things and the positive difference I hope I have made on this program and our players.

However, during times of adversity, you can’t just trick yourself into thinking everything is ok by making yourself feel good about things that have happened in the past. People that do, may feel better about themselves in the short term, but won’t be better off in the long run. Yesterday was brutal. This year has been tough. But like I say all the time, in every situation there are things you learn to do and things not to do. Needless to say, I have learned a lot this year and become a better person, coach and mentor to our player’s because of it. I strongly believe our program will do the same. Just like we did after losing to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, our staff and players will work vigorously to improve so that we can go on another special run in the NCAA tournament next season. Every ending, like this season, is the start to something new and I’m excited for these new challenges and opportunities.

I personally (well, as personal as you can be through a blog) want to thank all of our fans for their support this season. Throughout my 5 years here, your passion has always been remarkable. However, Vol Nation, your unwavering support, loyalty and enthusiasm throughout this tough season truly showed me why you are the best fan base in the country. My basketball family and I truly thank you!

GO VOLS!!

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Tourney Time!

NCAA Tournament here we come! After all we’ve been through, were right where we thought we would be…in the NCAA Tournament. A tournament that you can’t win unless you’re in. Are we happy with where we’re at? How can we not be? With a lot of very good teams left out of the tournament, we are thrilled to be playing in our 6th straight NCAA Tournament with the chance to shock the world as we survive and advance.

Our first test is the 8th seeded Michigan Wolverine’s and that test is no home ec 101 course. Coach Belien’s system is as complex as geometry. Their great spacing, hard cuts and numerous reads by their great shooting guards and small forwards make their offense difficult to cover for even their conference opponents who are familiar with their style. We on the other hand, will have had four days to learn their system and prepare our players. It is definitely the biggest challenge I have had while being in the NCAA tournament. To say we weren’t absolutely thrilled to have a Friday game and get that extra day to be prepared would be an understatement.

There are numerous things that we have stressed over the last few days but none as important or as simple then staying in stance. If we relax for even a second, we will be lost and they could embarrass us. So, here’s what I like to say; Stay in stance or get in your warm up pants…aka, if you get out of stance, your coming out of the game. As complicated as their offensive system is our main goal as a staff was to simplify what they do and communicate it to our players. Imagine guarding a Dane Bradshaw (good size, great play maker, non shooter) at the point, a Chris Lofton (great catch and shoot guy) at the 2, a JaJuan Smith (deadly shooter and very good slasher) at the 3, a junior year Ryan Childress (great shooter and very tough) at the 4 and a Brian Williams (screen and roller, opportunistic scorer and good rebounder) at the 5. Ummm ya, that group would not be fun to cover. There is no way to go over every action that they run but once the game gets going we must trust and all the work on our main defensive principles must pay off.

I strongly believe no matter how complex they may be we can not get paralyzed by over analyzing their stuff and clouding our players minds. Basketball is a game of instinct. If our players begin to think too much, we will then be put at a disadvantage. Sure we’ll do a couple different things but we most of all we must go to our strengths. I think sometimes once the NCAA tournament gets going some teams steer away from what got them there as they try to adjust to a particular opponent. We can’t do thatWe need to do what we do, be the aggressor and make Michigan adjust to us. How will they score against our length? How will their four-guard line up and undersized post defend Tobias, Jerrone, Brian, Kenny and John? That’s what makes games so exciting (and coaching so stressful). Hopefully, we are the one’s playing chess while their playing checkers so we can continue to build on our six year winning tradition.

GO VOLS!!

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82.4%

That was the only thing written on the dry erase board after the game. I’ve never, ever seen anything like that. 13-17. Really? How do you go from not allowing a team to score a field goal the last 6 minutes of the first half to that? Unbelievable, but yet, somehow, this year, it’s believable. This season, anything could happen.

No matter what you do or where you work, you either give energy, or you take it. There is no in-between. When we made our run, our second unit played with unbelievable energy and purpose. The multiple efforts; the stunts; the help we gave each other; the purpose. It was as though we had rewound to November, and it was so uplifting for all of us.

But then, but then, but then… I feel like somewhere in my blogs I am always having to write that dang phrase!But then everything came to a screeching halt for us, and Florida got back on a roll. As our offense struggled, theirs took off. They made shot after shot after shot because A) they are a really good basketball team full of very talented, tough players and, B) because that extra effort of ours was gone. I think we still gave good effort, but the urgency and the little things necessary to make them miss or turn them over wasn’t there by all five guys at all times. When we get those things from everyone who steps on the floor for us, we are very good. When we don’tthem, we are very average.

After discussing the game, Coach Pearl moved on to discussing the NCAA Tournament. He told the team that although he believes we are in, we still can’t be 100% certain. But with our strength of schedule, RPI, top-50 wins and decent record, we have to be in. Right? I guess we won’t know until Sunday. Until then, I’ll be thankful at the thought of the wins we have, frustrated at those we gave away and motivated by the thought of what I believe this team is still capable of achieving.

Thanks for all your support here in Atlanta, Vol Nation!

GO VOLS!!

 

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Confidence

And just like that, we start the new season off 1-0! Was it ugly? Heck no! All wins are beautiful this time of year. Survive and advance baby, survive and advance!

I won’t, and can’t, spend a lot of time on the Arkansas game because with such a quick turnaround we have already moved on to our Florida preparation. Matter of fact, there is no reason to even discuss the first half. We played well because our intensity and focus was there. The second half however, we came out with a lack of urgency. Couple that with a stretch of bad decisions offensively, a few missed layups and some made three balls by them, the next thing we knew, we were in for another barn burner. Thankfully, our intensity picked up, and we were able to make enough plays down the stretch to pull out win #1.

After the game, Coach Pearl talked heavily about our teams and each players confidence. He hammered home his anger with our team for, at times, not having confidence in them selves. Our players, especially certain players, have worked way too hard in the offseason and throughout this season to not have confidence. At this time of year, you have to be willing to let your instincts take over and take risks. As Coach said, just watch ESPN, are there any teams who look tentative or aren’t the aggressor that are winning?  No. Those teams that don’t fully believe in themselves, their teammates and their coaches, don’t win. Their season is over. Bottom line.

At times, we are similar to those teams who have already “gone fishin’. Our problems arise not because we don’t trust each other or the coaches, but because we have guys struggle with their own self-confidence. If we want to win tomorrow, we don’t have time for any self-pity parties. Not everything is going to go right so we must have a short-term memory and continually focus on the next play. We also need to gain confidence off the fact that nobody believes we can beat Florida tomorrow. They’re the SEC Champions, they’ve beaten us twice and they’re fresher. They are supposed to win. You know what, so was the last team favored to beat us this year, Vandy and if I remember correctly, Vandy went home with the L…not us. Don’t get me wrong, getting a win verse this great team is going to be a HUGE challenge for us but I can promise you we are extremely excited about this opportunity.

As I write this at 2am, our entire staff is meeting and rewatching our last game vs. Florida adjusting the previous game plan. However, because we played Florida just a few short weeks ago, there wont be too many adjustments being made for tomorrow. Not because adjustments aren’t needed but because there just isn’t enough time to implement a bunch of new things. With such a quick turnaround, teams who can successfully implement a few new wrinkles and execute what they can control despite their opponent knowing what you do and how you do it get these wins. Our staff needs to do our very best to instill confidence in our players, our players need to make shots and we need to force Florida out of their offensive comfort zone with our urgency. The first two games were tough body blows to our team but if we come out swinging by doing those things, we can shock the rest of the world and get win #2.

GO VOLS!!

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The Perfect Storm

Walking into the Georgia Dome today gave me goose bumps! No, not because the last time I was in there Coach Forbes and I almost got swept away in a Tornado, but because walking into that “football stadium” environment reminded me of the special run to the Elite Eight we went on last year in St. Louis. Hearing that horn go off as we beat Ohio State, seeing the sea of Orange sitting across from our bench and the stories people have told me about what they did and where they were as they cheered us on all came back to me. It’s that time of year again…March Madness, here we come!!

Describing this season as “up-and-down” would be an understatement, but we are excited and eager for this new season (postseason) and the opportunities and challenges it presents. First up, ourselves. Wait, what? Ourselves? I thought the Vols played Arkansas? Yeah, we do. But before we can lace ‘em up and go compete against Arkansas, we must make sure our minds are in the right place. There is no time to worry about the stakes we’replaying for, personal stats or some Georgia Dome UT curse people brought up yesterday. As Coach Pearl says, the only thing all of us–coaches included–can worry about is what we can control.

For the most part, our effort has been good enough to win the last few weeks, but our execution and decision-making has been inefficient. We can control that. In years past, our team has been structured in a way that has enabled us to play an up-tempo and high-possession style of play. Thus we have been able to overcome more bad shots and turnovers. However, because this year’s team has played a slower, grind-it-out tempo, a few bad shots, unforced turnovers or empty possessions throughout the game have often times been the differencebetween a win or loss for us. In football terms, we are a really good defensive team, but unfortunately we’regetting beat because it’s impossible to ask your offense to continually overcome Eric Berry pick-sixes, or Vandy-esque three-and-outs.

Therefore, despite our limited time on the court, we have done a substantial amount of work on our continuity offense. Coach Pearl went as far as demanding our players score out of this base offense or else they had to run 10 suicides. I’m happy to say, we only had to run once. He hasn’t done this since the preseason, and you couldsee a different urgency in our players as they attacked the basket. Defensively we worked primarily on shoring up our middle-ballscreen defense and rebounding. “Two hands,” “stunt” and communicate must have been yelled by our coaching staff 500 times throughout practice.

As each practice went on, we began working more and more on instilling our game plan into our players’ heads. Rewatching that tape, there are many things that we must change in order to get this W, and hopefully the adjustments we are instilling will pay off. The obvious key to their team is Rotnei Clark. A great shooter with a great motor, his activity and skill package will take the focus of their team. The scary part is, they have another very good player in Marshawn Powell and very intense, ball-pressuring guards that caused havoc against us earlier this year. We will have to play really, really well to beat them, but we all know we are capable of doing just that. Will we? We are working to do so, but at this point I’m praying for it as much as you are. Game 1 of our new season is here. Hopefully this year we’ll take this SEC Tournament and the Georgia Dome by storm!

GO VOLS!!

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Now or Never

This is how I had envisioned the day going: We continued to play better and got a huge win over our rival Kentucky that catapulted us to 2 nd place in the SEC East. Our six seniors walked off the Thompson-Boling Arena floor for the last time as winners. Our fans left the arena with their chests puffed out, smiling as they walked by every person wearing blue. Allan Houston, whose number was retired, came into the locker room after the game and celebrated with us as we jumped up and down singing victoriously “It’s GREAT, to be, a Tennessee Vol! I said its great, to be, a Tennessee Vol!”

Instead, we’re all left miserably licking our wounds….again.

The first half couldn’t have gone much better. Our defensive intensity was really, really good as we held them to 29% shooting and 20 points total. We were the aggressor and it enabled us to get out in transition for easy baskets to help our struggling half court offense. With that said, silly mistakes, such as the last play of the half, kept Kentucky closer than they should have been. But if you had told me before the game we would have been up 7 at the half, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.

Our inconsistency reared its ugly head again in the second half as we went from up seven to down as much as eight. It’s so frustrating talking about the same things over and over again but unfortunately, rebounding, 50/50 balls and our lack of offensive flow got us beat. You can’t beat a very good team like Kentucky if your opponent gets the last seven rebounds of the game and every guy on your roster isn’t willing to get on the floor for a loose ball.

As Kentucky made seven 2nd half three’s and scored 16 points off of 14 offensive rebounds, we more than doubled our turnovers from the first half and continued to get few open looks and miss numerous contested shots. We, coaches included, are all accountable for these struggles. In a post game coaches meeting, our coaches were verbally distraught over our lack of offensive efficiency. We are all accountable for our performance.

After the game, with multiple players crying, Coach Pearl addressed the team. In this post game speech he told our players he thought our effort was good enough to win that game. However, to win this time of year we need more than that. Every team this time of year is gong to play hard. Effort is expected; it shouldn’t have to be demanded. As he went on we could all sense him heading down the same “loose ball, rebounding, smart decisions lost us this game” road, but he stopped before he could finish it as he took the words right out of my mouth by saying “I’m so sick of this same old talk after a loss.”

This team, these seniors, this coaching staff’s legacy is not finalized yet. The 2010-11 Tennessee basketball team still has an opportunity to etch a positive place in this program’s history. We could blame our inability to do so thus far this season on one excuse or another but that’s a losing, cowardly, gutless attitude. We won’t do that. I won’t and members of this program won’t be associated with that losing mentality. We will fight throughout the remainder of this season. Those seniors, alumni like Allan Houston and our fans, whom I thought we would be celebrating with after our win Sunday, deserve nothing but our very best for the remainder of this season. With just one game definitely left on our schedule and participation in the NCAA tournament not yet guaranteed, it’s now or never.

 GO VOLS!!

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Kentucky

The next opponent who stands before us. The final game of our regular season. Our biggest rival. An opponent that our program first competed against in 1910 and has faced more than any other team.  A program whose fan base is just as passionate and supportive of their school’s tradition as our Vol Nation. A program we have beaten more than any other Kentucky opponent throughout their history.  A program from the state which two of our greatest and most cherished Vols of all time, Chris Lofton and Allan Houston, hail from. A team, coached by John Calipari, who like Coach Pearl, is one of the most successful , enthusiastic and yet polarizing coaches in the country.  A program that beat us in the conference tournament last year and whooped our butts earlier this year. A program we have beaten 3 out of the last 4 times in Knoxville. A team that comes into Knoxville Sunday highly ranked, extremely talented and above us in the standings. A team we need to beat.

There isn’t much more that needs to be said to get our players and fans excited for this game Sunday. When it’s Kentucky week, everybody knows what’s at stake. This year, it’s a higher seed in the SEC tourney, NCAA Tournament seeding, and of course, bragging rights. However, the message to our players is different. Sure Coach Pearl may mention the SEC and NCAA Tournament positioning, but to be honest, we remain focused on playing better. How many times have you seen a talented team who has struggled at times throughout the regular season get hot at the end of the year and go on a run? We want to be that team. What has happened in the past is exactly that: in the past. Learned from, now over. We need to take another step forward and improve Sunday.

With a quick turnaround from Thursday’s game at South Carolina, we were limited to how much live, hard contact we could do in preparation for Sunday. Therefore, we took to the film room for more than an hour on Friday and examined some plays from our South Carolina game and then analyzed the Kentucky breakdown film. Our team defense throughout the majority of our first matchup with Kentucky (guarding the ball handler, stopping their transition and rebounding) was highly scrutinized by Coach Pearl (when I say “scrutinized,” envision Bobby Knight throwing the chair after being thrown out while coaching at Indiana and that will give you a better picture of how upset Coach was). As we reiterated during this team meeting, we have no doubt that we will come ready to play with the passion and enthusiasm needed to win this game Sunday. However, the great fan support and that passion alone isn’t going to be what wins us this game. It will come down to the little things such as: Who will set screens, grab rebounds with two hands, make free throws, make the easy pass, be in proper help defensive position, etc.? If we concentrate and then accomplish these little things, I am confident the big one will take care of itself.

There is no greater person that reflects this mantra than the man who our University, Athletic Department and our basketball program is honored to call one of our family members, Allan Houston . There is no doubt in my mind that Allan is more well known for his unbelievable basketball accomplishments (such as, McDonald’s All-American in high school, two-time All-American , four-time All-SEC and UT’s all-time leading scorer; and his illustrious 12 year, All-Star participating, Gold Medal Olympic winning NBA career; and his current role as Assistant General Manager for the New York Knicks) than anything else. But everything I have heard about him, and my few conversations with him, have proved to me that he is much more than a great basketball player. As his Allan Houston Legacy Foundation (http://www.allanhouston.com/index.php) will show you, he is a man of God who values family and making a positive difference through hard work, integrity and leadership. Therefore, when Allan, surrounded by family at halfcourt, watches his jersey taking that honorable journey up to the cherished rafters of legends, he should stand before the 21,000 cheering members of Vol Nation proud not only of his basketball accomplishments but also of his status as a truly legendary role model for us all.

HEY VOL FANS: Email your favorite Allan Houston memories to PancratzFullCourtPress@yahoo.com. These memories cn be from any period of Allan’s life: High school, here at Tennessee, in the NBA, at church, in his community, etc. I will then accumulate all of the emails and present them to Allan Houston at the end of the season as a gift from Vol Nation.

Thanks and GO VOLS!!

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