Vols are hitting their stride -- just in time
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Tennessee's basketball team no longer smothers its opponents with a flurry of small, ultraquick guards, forcing turnovers and doing its best imitation of "40 Minutes of Hell."
The Volunteers no longer possess sharpshooters such as Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, who combined to make a whopping 211 3-pointers in the 2007-08 season.
But in the past five days, Tennessee has showed that it is still more talented than most every other team in the mediocre SEC and that it might even be better equipped to make a sustained run in the NCAA tournament than it has been in the past.
The Vols routed South Carolina 86-70 at Colonial Life Arena on Thursday night, handing the Gamecocks only their second home loss of the season. On Sunday, UT beat Florida 79-75, which was the Gators' first home loss of the season.
Tennessee's blowout of the Gamecocks clinched it at least a share of the SEC East regular-season title. The Volunteers will win the division title outright if they beat Alabama at home on Sunday or if South Carolina loses at Georgia on Saturday. Because the Vols swept two games against the Gamecocks, they'll be the East No. 1 in next week's SEC tournament in Tampa, Fla., regardless of this weekend's results.
Less than two weeks ago, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl wasn't sure what to think about his team. The Vols were mired in a five-game stretch in which they lost at Auburn (by one point), at Ole Miss (by 16) and at Kentucky (by 19).
"I think the hardest thing this season was having four guys who played a lot last year and five guys who had never played before in our program," Pearl said. "We had to mesh those guys together, which wasn't easy. I thought [winning the SEC East] was possible, but those kids had to come together as a team."
Success might have come too soon for the Volunteers this season. Tennessee lost four of its top seven scorers from last season, including Lofton and Smith, who combined to average nearly 30 points per game. The Vols also had to replace Ramar Smith and Jordan Howell, two of their primary ball handlers.
But the Volunteers won nine of their first 11 games, beating Georgetown 90-78 in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., and Marquette 80-68 in the SEC/Big East Challenge in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee was ranked No. 8 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll after seven games.
"Just running and dunking, that's what we do," forward J.P. Prince said.
But there also were early signs of trouble. Tennessee lost by 16 points at Temple on Dec. 13, then gave up 92 points in a seven-point loss at defending national champion Kansas on Jan. 3. The Vols were riding a two-game losing streak by the time SEC play opened, and they lost their second game against a league opponent, giving up 54 points to Jodie Meeks as they fell to Kentucky 90-72 in Knoxville on Jan. 13.
"This is the first time since early in the season that I have to worry about us handling success," Pearl said. "We've been in the middle of the SEC race the whole time. We lost our first home game, and we've been battling back ever since."
Pearl admits that he wondered whether the Volunteers would ever hit their stride as recently as two weeks ago, when they were drilled by Ole Miss and Kentucky on the road.
"For two years, we played like South Carolina does," Pearl said, referring to the Gamecocks' penchant for sinking 3-pointers and creating turnovers. "We've been unable to play that way. We battled to carve out our identity, and we still managed to win the East."
One of Pearl's biggest challenges was inserting juco transfer Bobby Maze and freshman Scotty Hopson into the starting lineup. Maze came to Knoxville after playing at Oklahoma in the 2006-07 season and at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas last season.
Maze was a big-time scorer while playing in the AAU circuit in Washington, D.C., where he played with former Texas star Kevin Durant and North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson. When Maze arrived at Tennessee this past summer, Vols fans quickly dubbed him "The Solution." But Pearl wanted the junior from Suitland, Md., to be "the complement" more than anything else.
Pearl asked Maze to play point guard and orchestrate his team's offense. Junior Josh Tabb, who averaged less than 10 minutes per game last season, also is handling the point this year.
"Our point guards are really not traditional point guards," Pearl said. "Bobby is a scorer, and Josh is a defender who has never played the position before. I've had to encourage Bobby to score. That's our job as a coach; to find out what our players do well."
With so much inexperience at point guard, the Volunteers have had to lean even more on junior Tyler Smith, their leading scorer. While still averaging more than 17 points per game, Smith is handling the basketball more often, too, to help take the pressure off Maze and Tabb.
"This team is together, and we're really enjoying it," Smith said. "We're sacrificing now. One guy might be on one night, and another guy will be on the next. The younger guys are looking for the older guys to step up because that's what we're supposed to do."
Smith certainly stepped up against South Carolina, scoring 22 points on 8-of-17 shooting, along with six rebounds, seven assists and only one turnover in 33 minutes.
"Tyler Smith was the difference out there," Pearl said. "Everything else was equal, but Tyler stepped up and made plays. We play Tyler at power forward, but he's really a big guard. He's an NBA guard who can handle the basketball."
And for the first time in a while, Tennessee looks as if it can handle success -- and its lofty expectations -- as it heads into the postseason.
"We stayed together even though we had some bad losses," forward Wayne Chism said. "We all stayed together as a team. We're a confident team right now. If we keep playing like this, there's no telling what we can do in the postseason."
Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.