The calendar flipped to March today, college basketball’s magical month.
Although the pandemic continues, there will be madness this year. There won’t be a repeat of the curtain falling in sudden, dramatic fashion before the start of the SEC tournament. That was 2020. It’s a new year.
But after watching Tennessee slog its way through a 77-72 loss at Auburn Saturday and trudge out of February with a 6-6 record during its last 12 games, it’s hard to muster a sense of anticipation.
It’s hard to ignore what is happening with the Vols and, for the matter, the rest of the SEC.
The Vols (16-7, 9-7 SEC) will continue to concern themselves with their own issues. The list includes a suspect offense, the ongoing struggles of veterans John Fulkerson and Yves Pons and an over-reliance on the scoring of freshman guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.
Add to the list a disconnect on strategy, which coach Rick Barnes was grousing about in the aftermath of Saturday’s loss. The Vols failed to execute a defensive call out of a timeout late in the game.
“If you don’t, you’re not locked in,” Barnes said, “What are you thinking about? Where are you? We’ve got way too much of that.”
Barnes referenced the aforementioned list, which seems to be growing instead of shrinking, in saying, “The fact is we’re not fixing the things we keep talking about. Maybe we don’t have the ability to do it. I don’t know. You start asking that question. What do we have to do? Do we have to make changes going forward in our program to do things?”
While Barnes is focusing on his team, it’s hard to ignore what’s been going on around UT. Six weeks ago, the Vols were among the top teams in the SEC. Now they’re not even in the top five in terms of level of play and momentum.
While Tennessee has stagnated, other teams have been surging. Alabama and Arkansas, for example, have risen to the top of the pecking order. The Crimson Tide, under second-year coach Nate Oats, have won their first SEC regular-season championship since 2002. Their celebration was delayed, though, by an 81-66 loss to the Razorbacks last week.
Arkansas, under second-year coach Eric Musselman, has won nine consecutive conference games and has risen to second in the standings despite losing four of their first six league games.
Saturday’s loss also was a reminder of how things have stayed the same for Tennessee. In this instance, the status quo wasn’t good either.
Auburn was playing without star guard Sharife Cooper, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. But the Tigers still had coach Bruce Pearl. With a sparse turnout due to the pandemic, his booming voice carried throughout Auburn Arena as he barked out instructions and exhorted his team to just its sixth SEC victory.
Pearl, the former UT coach, helped put the magic back in March for the Vols 14 years ago. His Auburn teams now have won six in a row against the Vols.
While they’re considering changes, Tennessee needs to stop this trend as well.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.