Since taking the reins of the Tennessee Volunteer basketball program three years ago, Bruce Pearl has done little wrong.
But his record in Knoxville does have one noticeable blemish: His teams have underperformed in tournament play.
This flaw rears its ugly head at the end of every season. In six total appearances in the SEC and NCAA Tournament, Pearl’s teams have only lost to a higher seed once, when the Vols blew a 20-point lead against the No. 1 seed Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2007 Sweet 16. The other five appearances resulted in performances that were below expectations and losses to lower-seeded teams.
Tournament play is clearly something the Volunteers need to work on, and starting Thursday Tennessee will have an opportunity to reverse its early season tournament record, which has been similarly poor since Pearl took over.
In 2007-2008, the Volunteers only lost three regular season games. Two of those games were decided in the final minute. The other, a blowout loss to Texas, came in the finals of the Legends Classic. In 2006-2007, the Vols’ lost twice in the Preseason NIT, to Butler and then North Carolina.
These results aren’t all that bad, but they are not befitting of a team that should now be perennially expected to challenge for a spot in the Elite Eight. Normally, performance in an early season tournament isn’t all that important—especially for a team such as Tennessee which has added so many new pieces.
But, given the Vols’ poor performances in March of late, a strong showing in the Old Spice Classic (given the strength of the field, a finish of third place or better would be acceptable) would at least give Tennessee a reason to be confident in tournament play.
What this team does have going for it, in this case, is its relative inexperience. Newcomers Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze are not used to March failure, so they may not start thinking “here we go again” when a game against a lower-seeded team starts to slip out of the Vols’ grasp.
Maze may also be the key to changing Tennessee’s tournament fortunes. Poor tournament play is often caused by inconsistency, and inconsistency is often a product of poor point guard play, which has been the biggest illness afflicting the Vols over the past two years.
So far, Maze, a Junior College transfer, has proven himself to be a potential cure. He has totaled 19 assists and just three turnovers in his first three games, albeit against inferior competition.
Maze and the Vols get their first test of the season Thursday against a dangerous Siena team. If they win that game, Georgetown looms in the semis, while top-10 foes Michigan State and Gonzaga both await in a potential Championship or third-place matchup.
A win over Siena and one of the latter three opponents would bode well for Tennessee’s season. A couple losses would have Vols fans wondering why their team just can’t seem to figure out tournament play.