What an incredible game! At one point in the second half I looked up and saw 3 non-scholarship players on the floor at the same time against the #1 team in the nation -- what a gritty, hard-fought, and determined effort! I'm so proud of the guys who fought and scrapped their way to such a momentous win for our program! What heart and determination!
I told lots of folks last week how I thought the team might actually be better off after the dismissal of Tyler Smith and the suspensions of Goins, Williams, and Tatum -- at least over the short term anyway. From the outside looking in, we seemed to have lost that hard-working, blue-collar mentality that seems to flourish in the Pearl system. You know -- that edge. That hunger. That underdog, chip-on-your-shoulder, we'll-prove-you-wrong mindset.
Now, don't get me wrong -- I've always liked Tyler Smith -- he was an absolute warrior at times on the court. The other kids -- not so sure about them -- but my point here is not to throw any of them under the bus. Indeed, generally-speaking you'd rather have MORE talent on your team as opposed to less.
But this year seemed different, though. It was almost like we had "arrived" but that some of the guys weren't dealing with stardom and success very well. Tyler seemed disinterested for lack of the better word. And suddenly, the on-court play began to look as though being "cool" seemed more important than taking care of business and playing with a sense of urgency. They're just kids, mind you, but the body language and chemistry just didn't look right. It looked like the guys were counting on "out-talenting" other teams rather than simply outworking 'em. And our team looked way too deferential to Smith on the court -- as if they were always waiting for him to do something. While they stood. And watched. And waited. And then waited some more.
And Tatum? This is the same kid who put out a Twitter message two weeks ago saying that "Knoxville is boring" -- I mean, are you kidding me? I almost flipped out when I saw it. Boring -- in the middle of the basketball season? How much more exciting does life for a basketball player get? And how's that for negative recruiting fodder for other programs! (I guess maybe he was just trying to spice things up a little with the joyride.)
In any event, there's nothing like a little wake-up call to put things back in perspective and see what you're really made of. I mean, those kids yesterday clearly get it. Pearl obviously did a masterful job last week. The kids looked and sounded like they understand that wearing "Tennessee" on your chest is an honor and a privilege that demands your respect and sacrifice. Check out the video of the postgame lockerroom speech and celebration (click on featured video on the right tab). I loved seeing the guys during the postgame celebration tug at the "Tennessee" on their uniform.
But now comes the hard part -- i.e. sustaining some semblance of that same level of commitment and heart over the course of a grueling SEC schedule with a shorthanded roster. Maybe some of the suspended guys will have learned a lesson and find their way back on the team. I hope they do. But only if they understand what it means to represent the University of Tennessee.
In the meantime, Coach Pearl is at his best in an underdog role with blue-collar kids who who want to work hard, sacrifice, and play with heart. I suspect we might see a little more magic before it's all over.