January 1, 2010 was supposed to be the end of the Tennessee Volunteers men’s basketball program. In one day a team considered by many to contend for the SEC title was left shorthanded thanks to poor judgment by Brian Williams, Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and the team’s best player Tyler Smith. Smith was removed from the team, Goins is still suspended, and Williams and Tatum were eventually reinstated. The Vols were toast. They had only 6 scholarship players and to walk-ons to get through the rest of the year before the return of Williams and Tatum. They had a tough SEC schedule, breakdowns on offense and very little identity as a team. Yet here they are 3 months later on the cusp of their first final four in school history.
After beating Ohio State 76-73 the Volunteers are a win over Michigan State away from playing for the games most coveted prize, the national championship. It’s amazing to consider what this team has been through over the last 3 months to think that they would even be remotely close to playing for a title.
Props of course goes to Bruce Pearl for pulling this thing together. He could’ve folded up his tent and started prepping for next year using the lack of talent on his team as an excuse. Instead, Pearl dug in and produced one of the best coaching jobs in recent memory.
After the arrests, Pearl led his shorthanded team to wins over top ranked Kansas, Kentucky, and Florida leaning heavily on seniors Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince and getting consistent production from Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze who was forced into the starting point guard role after Smith’s dismissal. He received help from walk-on Skylar Mcbee, whose clutch shooting helped to sink Kansas.
It’s Chism who deserves most of the credit for finally jumping out of other players’ shadows and accepting the responsibility for carrying Tennessee in the second half of the season. Looking at his performance against Ohio State you saw Chism at his best, which was rarely a sight in his first three years in Knoxville. His wide bodied, athletic frame dominated Dallas Lauderdale to the tune of 22 and 11 and helped the Vols score 46 points in the paint including a tip-in by Brian Williams which was the eventual game winning shot. Chism’s play in the paint overshadowed another amazing performance by Evan Turner who likely played his last game in scarlet and grey.
Then there was Prince, who was the most tired man on the floor chasing around Evan Turner and disrupting Jon Diebler all game long. After the game he admitted to being heavily fatigued and dedicated most of his time to defending Turner. “I said on offense, ‘They’ll take care of it; I’ll save it all for defense,’” Prince said. “That’s all I did. I knew that last two minutes I was going to make them work no matter what. I know nobody wanted it more than I did.” After he blocked Turner’s last second prayer, you could say his dedication to defense was worth the price of being tired.
If it ends Sunday, it still was a great ride for Tennessee, but how can this team not win one more game and advance to the final four. Now that all of the mid-majors have been ousted, it is clear to see the Tennessee is the true Cinderella of the tournament. Left for dead in January, grinding hard to a title in March, how can you not root for these guys? Whatever happens, Bruce Pearl will be ready no matter the circumstance. He survived and conquered this far with a slim roster and a ton of skeptics, what makes you think he won’t do it one more time?