The effects of a wild couple of days—make that a wild couple of months—showed in Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl’s face on Tuesday night.
Minutes after his team lost at home to Oakland, Pearl was trying to explain how the Vols could dismantle third-ranked Pittsburgh on what was essentially its homecourt last Saturday, and then, two days later, lose in Knoxville to a team from the Summit League. Maybe it was an omen. The Vols play, after all, on a court called The Summit, named after another Tennessee basketball coach you may have heard about.
Branded by some in the national media as a Final Four contender after its win over the similarly anointed Panthers, Tennessee didn’t look like the same team against Oakland, which contrary to what some Vol fans thought, hails from Michigan, not California, and is, by the way, a pretty good basketball team.
“We have not been excited about playing twice this year,” Pearl said. “And we lost both games.”
Pearl was also referring to the Vols’ exhibition game loss to Division II Indianapolis. Clearly, intensity, or the lack thereof, was the primary suspect in the Oakland debacle. Coming into the game, the Vols had held their opponents to a combined .368 field-goal percentage and an average of 66.6 points per game. The Golden Grizzlies, led by probable NBA draft pick Keith Benson, lit Tennessee up for .536 shooting and 89 points.
This was not the same team that bludgeoned Pittsburgh and also took out another Big East favorite, Villanova, at Madison Square Garden, last month. If the Vols are to land in Houston on the final weekend of the season, they’ll have to find a way to bottle the intensity they bring on the road and haul it out, ironically enough, when they are playing in more friendly confines.
More challenges are coming. Pearl has mastered the art of scheduling to produce maximum RPI results, but that means his players can’t take a night off.
“We test them every night with our schedule,” Pearl said. “That’s one of the hard things about it. The great news is you’re playing a good schedule. The bad news is when you’re playing a good team every night, you just don’t give them a break. Now we have to go on the road to play Charlotte. Then we play USC. Then we play Belmont. There’s never a night when—and obviously there’s a big target on us—you can’t be excited about playing all the time.”
Pearl’s record suggests he will pick his team off the canvas and have it peaking in March. And if he needed any encouragement on Tuesday night, it came from the opposing coach. Oakland’s Greg Kampe believes in challenging his team, too. So far this season the Grizzlies have run a brutal gauntlet that includes games at West Virginia, Ohio, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan State. Games at Michigan State and Ohio State await later this month.
“They’re every bit as good as Michigan State, Illinois, West Virginia,” Kampe said of Tennessee. “I’m not going to say they’re better, but I won’t say those teams are better than them. They’re every bit as good. I still think they’re capable of going a long way in the [NCAA] Tournament. This game is going to make them better. [Pearl] has got stuff now he can put on tape and show them.”
THE BIG MAN COMETH: Try as he might to caution fans about expecting too much, too soon from 6-10, 270-pound sophomore Renardo Sidney, who makes his long-awaited debut against Virginia Tech on Dec. 18, even Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury has to admit the big man possesses transformative talent.
He hasn’t played an organized game in nearly two years, but nevertheless, a lot will be expected from Sidney, who had to sit out all of 2009-10 and the first nine games of this season after the NCAA ruled he had received improper benefits before he signed with the Bulldogs.
“He’s got skills that you can’t teach,” Stansbury said. “You can’t do enough drills to teach the things he knows. It starts with a high basketball IQ, but he’s also got a great feel for the game and great footwork. He knows how to get the basketball in the hole in a verity of ways. His challenge will be getting into game shape, but it’s very obvious he’ll get better as the season goes on.”
Stansbury had to get creative with State’s schedule so Sidney and junior guard Dee Bost—who’s sitting out his own nine-game suspension after withdrawing from the NBA draft 12 hours past the NCAA’s deadline and is also academically ineligible the first semester—would be ready for the more grueling portion of the season.
“It looked a lot better in August than it did now,” Stansbury said of the Bulldogs’ recent stretch of five games—including an exhibition against Belhaven for the benefit of Sidney—in as many days.
The schedule after Sidney’s debut will be challenging in its own way, taking the Bulldogs from the Bahamas (Battle of Atlantis against Virginia Tech) to Hawaii (for the Diamondhead Classic that includes, among others, Baylor, Butler, Florida State, Utah and Washington State) and to Las Vegas (Saint Mary’s) from Dec. 18-29. Tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it.
REINING IN THE JUMPERS: Florida’s box score from its Dec. 9 victory over Kent State might have brought back old memories for Gator fans. Seldom since the consecutive national championship years of 2006-07 have two post players (think Joakim Noah and Al Horford) been Florida’s top two scorers in a game. But it happened against the Golden Flashes, Alex Tyus leading the way with 20 points and Vernon Macklin right behind with 19.
Of greater significance were the number of shots the two big men took—Tyus was 10-of-15 from the field and Macklin 9-of-12, for that output is a sign of things to come. The Gators—who have already lost twice at home, to Ohio State and UCF, coached by former UF assistant Donnie Jones—were in danger of losing their way by getting too perimeter happy.
Guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are capable of shooting opponents out of games, but Florida coach Billy Donovan was worried about them shooting the Gators out of games, thus his edict that they begin looking inside for high-percentage shots, which is the Gators’ strength.
No team in the league possesses a deeper frontcourt rotation, and it was high time Florida started emphasizing it. It’s interesting to note that in the Kent State game, Boynton and Walker were a combined 4-of-17 from the field (2-of-11 from three-point range) and Florida still won. Old habits die hard, apparently, but look for the Gator guards to continue to look inside, and also look for Chandler Parsons, the 6-10 senior, to become more of a point forward as the offense runs through him. He’ll score less than a year ago but generate more offense through his passing.
KNIGHT MOVES: Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight isn’t John Wall, but then again, who is? It isn’t even fair to compare the Kentucky point guards past and present. Wall, who some long-time observers of the game think is the most athletic point guard since Dr. Naismith hung his first peach basket, was one of those once-every-15-years kind of players, a lead guard who can score and facilitate for others and has the instinct to know which of those duties to perform at the right time.
Knight—who racked up 3,515 points in high school, second in Florida history—is probably a more talented scorer than Wall, but that has presented something of a problem as he figures out when to shoot and when to pass. That’s an art, not a science, and as Kentucky coach John Calipari explained last week after the Wildcats defeated Indiana, knowing when to launch and when to deal is vital for a point guard.
“If the quarterback decides that he's not going to hand it off where he's supposed to and he runs the other way and he gets knocked out and fumbled, you go, why would you do that?” Cal said, using an SEC-appropriate analogy. “Do you understand? A quarterback, you cannot break down what we are trying to do. You can't. You are going to score on the way we play, anyway.”
Knight must be starting to figure things out. The SEC Freshman-of-the-Week award he earned this week came after he averaged 19.0 points, 5.0 boards and 4.5 assists against Notre Dame and Indiana. Knight did his best Wall impersonation (which is to say, clutch) by scoring five points and grabbing five rebounds in the final 10 minutes in the Indiana game as the Wildcats pulled away for a double-figure victory.
“I thought Brandon made strides today,” the exacting Calipari said afterward. “Still not the kind of game I want him to play, but he made strides.”
OTHER ROOKIE POINTS CAN PLAY, TOO: Knight isn’t the only freshman point guard in the SEC who’s made an impact in the first month of the season. South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington (13.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.1 apg) and LSU’s Andre Stringer (15.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.9 apg) are leading their respective teams in assists and scoring. Trevor Releford paces Alabama in assists and is averaging double figures (10.0 ppg).
Already this season, Ellington has displayed a knack for clutch shooting. His three-pointer with 20.7 seconds left in regulation against Western Kentucky forced the game into overtime and the Gamecocks won in double overtime. And his three-pointer in the final minute helped beat Clemson and end a six-game losing streak to South Carolina’s in-state rivals.
“When you see the shots he made against Western Kentucky to put it in overtime and basically win the game, and the big three he made [against Clemson], that's just a player who's got a little something special,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “That turns programs.”