College Basketball Nation: Brian Williams

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Thoughts from Missouri's 88-70 victory over Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.

Overview: Highly ranked teams often look sluggish and disinterested against inferior opponents in the opening game of a conference tournament. Not Missouri. The Tigers jumped out to a 23-6 lead Thursday and never looked back during an complete annihilation of an Oklahoma State squad it lost to earlier in the season.

Granted, the Cowboys were playing without injured star Le'Bryan Nash (wrist). But the freshman wouldn't have been enough to save the Cowboys in this one. Missouri's Kim English had 21 points by intermission and finished with 27. Missouri, which shot 59 percent from the field, also got 24 points from Marcus Denmon and 13 from Michael Dixon. Phil Pressey had 12 assists.

Keiton Page scored 22 points for Oklahoma State while Brian Williams finished with 21.

Turning point: With the score tied 6-6, Missouri uncorked a 17-0 run that included 10 points from English. Oklahoma State missed nine consecutive shots before Williams connected on a 3-pointer that made it 23-9. The Cowboys, though, never recovered and were down by as many as 29 points in the opening half. It was 49-24 at intermission.

Key player: English had the most points, but it was Pressey was the player who turned the most heads Thursday. Along with 12 assists,'s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year had 6 steals against the Cowboys. The Tigers are a special team when Pressey brings his "A" game. And even when he doesn't, they're still pretty darn good.

Key stat: Missouri might be glaringly undersized, but that rarely shows up on the stat sheet. The Tigers - who start just one player (Ricardo Ratliffe) taller than 6-foot-6 - out-rebounded Oklahoma State 40-20.

Miscellaneous: We'll talk plenty about Missouri in the coming days and week, but as for the obit on Oklahoma State ... give the Cowboys credit for continuing to improve during what could've been a lost season. Rotation players Reger Dowell and Roger Franklin both left the team before Big 12 play, and fourth-leading scorer J.P. Olukemi played just 13 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Nash missed the lpast five games with a broken wrist. Still, the Cowboys became one of just three teams to beat Missouri when they upended the Tigers on Jan. 25 in Stillwater. They also own wins against Iowa State, Texas and Texas A&M. This would've been a fringe NCAA tournament with a healthy, complete roster. Instead Oklahoma State ends its season with an overall record of 15-18, including a 7-11 mark in the Big 12.

What's next: No. 2 seed Missouri will play Texas in Friday's Big 12 tournament semifinal. The other semifinal pits fourth-seeded Baylor against Kansas, the top overall seed. Missouri is now 28-4 overall.

Conference Power Rankings: Big 12

February, 6, 2012
Here are this week’s Big 12 power rankings:

1. Missouri: The Tigers have played the two toughest teams in the league (Kansas and Baylor) and defeated them both. Guard Marcus Denmon had made just five of his previous 31 attempts from 3-point range before going 6-for-9 from beyond the arc in Saturday’s win against Kansas.

2. Kansas: The Jayhawks blew an eight-point lead with just more than 2 minutes remaining in Saturday’s loss at Missouri, but with Baylor up next on Wednesday, there’s no time to mope about the loss. Kansas is 16-2 all-time against the Bears, who it defeated by 18 points last month at Allen Fieldhouse.

3. Baylor: The Bears’ Big 12 title hopes depend largely on what happens this week. Baylor hosts Kansas on Wednesday and travels to Missouri Saturday. Baylor’s only two losses are against those two teams. The Bears' offense looked sloppy and disorganized in last week’s victories over Texas A&M (63-60) and Oklahoma State (64-60).

4. Iowa State: The Cyclones won at Oklahoma Saturday despite getting just three points from leading scorer Royce White. Fred Hoiberg's squad has won five of its past six games overall and could continue that streak this week against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.

5. Kansas State: The Wildcats got back on the winning track by defeating Texas A&M Saturday at home. And the good times should continue when Kansas State hosts Texas Tech on Tuesday. Leading scorer Rodney McGruder has made just four of his previous 20 3-point attempts.

6. Texas: Rick Barnes’ squad hasn’t caught many breaks in conference play. Texas’ six league losses have come by an average of five points. The Longhorns had lost five of their previous six games before defeating Texas Tech on Saturday. Monday’s road game against a beat up Texas A&M squad is winnable.

7. Texas A&M: The Aggies almost defeated Baylor without Khris Middleton and Dash Harris on Wednesday, and they led Kansas State at halftime before falling 64-53 Saturday in Manhattan. Considering all of the injuries, Texas A&M deserves credit for competing as well as it has.

8. Oklahoma: The Sooners have dropped four of their previous five games heading into Monday’s contest against Missouri. All of a sudden the team that got off to a 9-1 start is 3-7 in league play. Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald are averaging a combined 31.1 points.

9. Oklahoma State: Three weeks after losing to them by 41 points, Oklahoma State nearly upset the Baylor Bears before falling 64-60 Saturday in Stillwater. Freshman Brian Williams had 23 points in the loss. On Tuesday, Oklahoma State hosts the same Iowa State squad that it lost to on a buzzer-beater Jan. 18 in Ames.

10. Texas Tech: Last week’s home game against Oklahoma State appeared to be the Red Raiders’ best chance of picking up a Big 12 win. Instead, Billy Gillispie’s team was throttled 80-63. Jordan Tolbert leads Texas Tech in scoring with 11.9 points per contest. But he’s averaging just 6.3 points in his past three games.

ATLANTA -- As Tennessee center Brian Williams sat in the corner of the Volunteers’ locker room in the Georgia Dome on Thursday night, he wasn’t interested in talking about his winning shot in the final minute of a 74-68 victory over Arkansas in the first round of the SEC tournament.

Instead, the fast-talking senior from the Bronx wanted to describe his only 3-pointer of the game.

“They just showed me my stats,” Williams said. “That was the 37th 3-pointer of my career, and I’ve made eight. That’s what I do. The numbers don’t lie.”

Actually, Williams has shot 5-for-14 on 3-pointers during his four-year college career. But who’s really counting?

[+] EnlargeBrian Williams
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTennessee's Brian Williams had nine points -- including the game-winning shot -- and eight rebounds against Arkansas.
“Every day,” Williams said. “That’s what I do.”

“That’s all he does,” said Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson, who was sitting on the stool next to Williams. “And ball handling.”

“They should make it my play instead of his,” Williams said.

Williams made perhaps the biggest shot of Tennessee’s season on Thursday night, albeit one that came much closer to the basket.

And Williams nearly wasn’t on the floor to shoot it.

After the Razorbacks wiped out a 16-point deficit in five minutes and tied the score at 68 with 2:08 to go, Williams was hit in the eye by Hogs forward Delvon Johnson. Williams lay on the floor for several minutes and had to be helped to UT’s bench.

“I was punched in the eye,” Williams said. “It was flagrant. I think I got punched in the eye twice. I’m not going to feel it until the morning, though. I just had to suck it up.”

With the score tied at 68, the Razorbacks had a chance to take the lead, but Johnson walked while trying to spin around UT freshman Tobias Harris with 1:10 to play.

Williams came back into the game. When Harris drove to the basket with less than a minute to go, Johnson left Williams to defend him. Harris made a nice interior pass to Williams, who scored the winning layup with 55 seconds to go.

“I saw his man move onto me, and I looked for him,” said Harris, who finished with 20 points. “That’s what we do.”

Harris made two foul shots with 33.8 seconds left to seal the victory.

For several minutes on Thursday night, it seemed the Volunteers were going to squander away another big lead, just like they’ve done too many times this season.

“They were making tough shots and you couldn’t get any rebounds,” Williams said. “There wasn’t anything you could do about it.”

The Vols didn’t help themselves, though, by missing 11 shots and committing two turnovers during their nearly five-minute drought.

“I was just thinking, ‘Dang, we’re getting to that time of the game again, when we let someone make a run to get back into the game,’” Harris said.

[+] EnlargeBrian Williams
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBrian Williams almost didn't make it back onto the court after a hard foul in the second half.
Instead, UT found a way to survive and advanced to play SEC regular-season champion Florida in Friday’s quarterfinals.

The Volunteers lost two very close games against the Gators during the regular season, 81-75 in overtime in Knoxville, Tenn., on Jan. 11 and 61-60 in Gainesville, Fla., on Feb. 12.

“They were both close games,” Williams said. “They know we can play with them, and we know they can play with us. It’s just going to come down to who wants it more.”

With Arkansas’ season probably coming to an end, the Razorbacks have to decide if they want coach John Pelphrey anymore. The Hogs finished 18-13 and will likely miss the NCAA tournament for the third season in a row.

Pelphrey, who has a 69-59 record in four seasons with the Hogs, wouldn’t comment on his future at the school after the game.

“We’ll talk about our team tonight and we’ll talk about the SEC tournament,” Pelphrey said. “There will be a time for that reflection here at some point in time. I look forward to it.”

As poorly as Pelphrey’s night ended, his day didn’t start much better. On Thursday morning, posted a photo of him posing with Sylvan Hills (Ark.) High prospect Archie Goodwin and teammate Trey Smith at a high school tournament last December. Goodwin and Smith are high school juniors, so Pelphrey’s off-campus contact with them would be a violation of NCAA rules.

“We’re certainly very sensitive to those things and take all that stuff very, very seriously,” Pelphrey said. “It will be looked into with regards to our compliance people, and if there’s something there, we’ll certainly cooperate and be forthcoming.”

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl knows about NCAA investigations all too well. He was suspended from coaching in his team’s first eight SEC games by league commissioner Michael Slive, after Pearl lied to NCAA investigators about having illegal contact with recruits. Pearl is still awaiting to learn whether or not he’ll be penalized any more by the NCAA.

“We’ll find out,” Pearl said. “We have been very accountable and responsible for what’s happened, and we’re dealing with it. We’re trying to lead through it. The penalties that we have imposed on [ourselves] are very severe and we’re managing. We’re trying to overcome, but it’s part of the process. Just the fact that it has to get discussed some is a good deterrent.”
ATLANTA -- Tennessee nearly blew a 16-point lead in the final seven minutes of its SEC tourney opening-round game against Arkansas, but survived with a 74-68 victory at the Georgia Dome.

The Razorbacks trailed 68-52 with 7:05 to play, but then went on a 16-0 run to tie the score at 68 with 2:08 remaining. After starting the second half 14-of-18 from the field, the Volunteers went 0-for-11 from the floor and had two turnovers during their nearly five-minute drought.

Arkansas had a chance to take a lead in the final two minutes, but forward Delvon Johnson turned the ball over while trying to spin around UT freshman Tobias Harris with 1:10 left.

On Tennessee’s next possession, Harris found senior Brian Williams inside for an easy layup to make it 70-68 with 55 seconds to go. After the Hogs called timeout, UT guard Melvin Goins stripped the ball from guard Julysses Nobles, and Harris was fouled with 33.8 seconds to play. Harris made two foul shots to seal the victory.

Turning point: After the Volunteers took a 16-point lead in the second half, Arkansas got back-to-back 3-pointers from Rotnei Clarke and Nobles to make it 68-64 with 3:41 to play. Williams, the Vols’ best inside presence, was poked in the eye and had to leave the floor. The Hogs tied the score at 68 with Williams sitting on the bench. He returned to make the winning basket.

Key player: Harris, a freshman from Dix Hills, N.Y., is considered a potential one-and-done player and it doesn’t take very long to see why he might enter the NBA draft after only one college season. The 6-foot-8 forward scored 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting and grabbed three rebounds.

Key stat: The Volunteers held on to win despite shooting only 2-for-15 on 3-pointers. It was the fewest number of 3-pointers UT made in a game this season, tying season-lows in losses to Kentucky and Charlotte.

Miscellaneous: Junior guard Scotty Hopson, the Vols’ leading scorer with 17.7 points per game, scored only eight points on 4-for-9 shooting. He didn’t start the second half because of a “coach’s decision” and was replaced on the floor by senior Josh Bone.

What’s next: The Volunteers will play SEC regular-season champion Florida in Friday night’s quarterfinals. Both of UT’s games against UF this season were extremely close, with the Gators winning 81-75 in overtime in Knoxville on Jan. 11 and 61-60 in Gainesville on Feb. 12. Arkansas finished the season with an 18-12 record, and coach John Pelphrey’s future at the school seems to be tenuous at best with a 69-59 record in four seasons.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Bruce Pearl returned to the SEC sidelines on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, not all of his players came with him.

Tennessee could have had Bruce Wayne or Minnie Pearl coaching it against No. 18 Kentucky, and the Volunteers still wouldn't have had much of a chance the way they let themselves get pushed around in a 73-61 loss at Rupp Arena.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's DeAndre Liggins
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesKentucky's DeAndre Liggins finished with 19 points, five steals, five rebounds and three assists.
"Just too many no-show performances," Pearl said.

The story of the night was the re-emergence of the Wildcats' veterans, not Pearl. Normally so reliant on its freshmen, John Calipari's team got an unexpected boost from the upperclassmen.

Junior DeAndre Liggins, a defensive standout who's usually an offensive afterthought, matched his career high with 19 points. Senior center Josh Harrellson scored in double figures for the first time in over a month with 16 points; he apparently loves rivalry games, since Tuesday was his best scoring effort since a 23-point performance against Louisville. Inconsistent junior Darius Miller struggled with his shot but chipped in six rebounds and generally solid play.

Calipari's favorite comeback, though, was the resurfacing of a toughness missing from his team's back-to-back road losses at Ole Miss and Florida. On the plane home from Saturday's loss in Gainesville, he berated his players' individual shortcomings. Each had to stand up before his teammates this week and verbally commit to improving an aspect of their game. To drive the point home, Calipari put boxing gloves on each player and had them work the heavy bag for about a minute.

"It was like jab, jab, jab, body shot," Liggins said. "It was more of a mindset, a toughness thing."

Kentucky didn't do any literal punching but outfought Tennessee in just about every aspect. The Wildcats outrebounded the Volunteers 38-28, got to the free throw line 27 times to Tennessee's 12, hustled for every loose ball and scored 21 points off turnovers.

"Looking at the stat sheet, there was no possible way we could have won that game," Tennessee center Brian Williams said.

It was almost a must-win game for both teams in the crowded SEC East. Kentucky (17-6, 5-4) was in danger of falling under .500 in league play. Instead, it moved into a second-place logjam with Tennessee and Georgia, with South Carolina and Vanderbilt also tied in the loss column. The Wildcats still are in the race but have to figure out how to win on the road, where they're 1-4 in league play with a tricky trip to Vandy coming up.

"We've got a short roster and are not playing that many guys, so we've got to be tough," Liggins said. "That showed big tonight, but the main thing is doing it on the road, not just at home."

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Bruce Pearl
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBruce Pearl returned from an eight-game SEC suspension against Kentucky.
The Vols (15-9, 5-4) are on the NCAA bubble and face an all-important game at division front-runner Florida on Saturday. But at least they'll have Pearl back in the huddle. They managed to go 5-3 as he served an eight-game league suspension for lying to NCAA investigators last summer.

"It meant a lot to us to get him back," guard Josh Bone said. "We didn't get the win, and that hurt. But hopefully having him on the sideline will spark us in our next game."

Pearl joked Monday that his suspension was actually harsher than eight games since he had to make his return at Rupp Arena. He wore his trademark orange blazer for this one, but the garish coat couldn't help him avoid a five-game losing streak in the building.

A Kentucky fan yelled "Welcome back" as Pearl headed to the locker room following warm-ups. But not all proved as welcoming. A small group of blue-clad fans directly behind the Tennessee bench shouted things like "cheater," "liar" and other unprintable words at Pearl (which, given Kentucky's own spotty NCAA history, seemed a little ironic). At halftime, Pearl asked arena security to do something about the fans.

"It was just the language; my family is back there," Pearl said. "They can say whatever they want."

Pearl has bigger issues. Leading scorer Scotty Hopson came back from an ankle injury that kept him out of the past two games, but he clearly wasn't 100 percent. Star freshman Tobias Harris, whom Pearl said still isn't fully recovered from his own ankle problem, had one of his worst games of the season with 10 points and only two rebounds. Harris didn't get to the free throw line until the final minute, but at least he was the only Volunteers frontcourt player who did make it to the charity stripe.

"It's a toughness issue," Bone said. "You can control your toughness and control being punked by somebody. We lacked that tonight."

Unless that changes, it won't matter where Bruce Pearl spends his game days.

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl declined to take a tour of ESPN on Friday afternoon, choosing to stay back at the team hotel.

But for the first time in four games he doesn’t have to stay there once the game tips off. Pearl is coaching the Volunteers on Saturday against Connecticut at Hartford’s XL Center due to a quirk in his eight-game SEC suspension. The discipline handed down by SEC commissioner Mike Slive is for SEC games only since that is his jurisdiction. The nonconference game against the eighth-ranked Huskies fell in the middle of the SEC schedule.

Late Tuesday night, after the Vols had beaten Georgia in Athens on a last-second putback from Brian Williams, Pearl told by phone from his Knoxville home that nothing will change once he’s on the sideline for the 2 p.m. ET game against UConn.

And that’s exactly the mantra the players are proclaiming in advance.

“I don’t think it will be different at all, no matter who the head coach is,’’ Williams said Friday during the team’s tour of ESPN’s campus. “He’s our leader but we have the same common goal. It’s great to have our head coach back.’’

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Bruce Pearl and Tony Jones
AP Photo/Wade PayneBruce Pearl, right, returns to the Tennessee sideline on Saturday against UConn after assistant Tony Jones, left, coached the past four games.
The timing, though, couldn’t be more perfect for Pearl. He doesn’t have to come in as a savior for the team or to bail out his longtime assistant Tony Jones. Jones, who was the acting coach for the first four games of the suspension and will resume the role Wednesday against LSU, won his last two games as head coach after dropping the first two.

The Vols came back to beat Vanderbilt at home last Saturday in Knoxville and then beat UGA on the last-second bucket to give them momentum heading into UConn.

“It’s definitely a confidence boost,’’ said Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson. “We needed these two wins to get us rolling. We now understand what we have to do to win. [Having Pearl] back is good for us. It takes the pressure off the other coaches and gives us the comfort level that we need.’’

The Vols have been the most enigmatic team in college basketball this season, more so than Virginia Tech, USC or Michigan State. Tennessee, amid its own chaos with Pearl’s suspension due to misleading NCAA investigators on a recruiting violation from two years ago, has experienced an amazing array of highs and lows. Tennessee picked off quality wins over Missouri State and VCU, then beat Villanova at Madison Square Garden to win the NIT Season Tip-Off. UT continued its remarkable nonconference ascension by knocking off Pitt at the Consol Energy Arena in downtown Pittsburgh in an SEC-Big East Invitational game.

That was of course followed by losses to Oakland, Charlotte and USC, as well as a one-point escape to Belmont, a six-point win over Tennessee-Martin and a 13-point loss at home to Charleston.


“It was all about intensity and focus,’’ said Tennessee’s Cameron Tatum. “A lot of teams were looking to knock off Tennessee and we had to do a better of job of focusing.’’

The Vols, which did have a defensive look about them in the early-season wins, suddenly were giving up 91 points to Charleston? But then the bizarre 180 of this team continued with a 104-84 smashing of Memphis, only to follow up by losing the first of two Pearl suspended games at Arkansas by three and at home to Florida by six in overtime.

Up next are the Huskies and Kemba Walker. Stop both and the Vols will have the three best nonconference wins any team will have against the Big East this season.

“We’ve been playing great basketball against the better teams and we’ve got to do that Saturday,’’ Williams said. “We’ve built momentum with this two-game winning streak, something we haven’t had in a long time. It’s hard to do that in the SEC East. Now we’ve got momentum going into Saturday.’’

Resilient Vols return focus to basketball

November, 26, 2010

NEW YORK -- The NCAA mess that Bruce Pearl and his staff got the Tennessee program into will rear its ugly head again when the NCAA releases its official document of allegations, most likely within the next month.

But for one night at least, the Volunteer basketball team shifted the focus to actual basketball -- in this case an improbable NIT Season Tip-Off trophy after an impressive 78-68 win over seventh-ranked Villanova in the championship game at Madison Square Garden.

It’s become clear now that the more Tennessee wins, the less likely an NCAA investigation will have a major effect on this particular team.

The reason is the Vols have a basketball team that is again worthy of attention, and a freshman in Tobias Harris that should at least be in the same conversation with Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, Harrison Barnes of North Carolina, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight of Kentucky and in a few weeks, Josh Selby of Kansas.

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AP Photos/Henny Ray AbramsTourney MVP Scotty Hopson and his Tennessee teammates were all smiles on Friday night.
“We showed toughness, in a tough environment and we had an edge coming in,’’ said Pearl. “Nobody picked Tennessee to win.’’

No one on, that’s for sure.

“I wouldn’t blame you,’’ Pearl said. “I would have picked Villanova against the field, too.’’

After this 10-point victory, in which they led for the final 12 minutes and for most of the game, the 24th-ranked Vols will certainly move up in the rankings. But just as importantly, perhaps, they’ll strike a bit of fear in the minds of every team in the SEC East, after Tennessee was picked to finish fourth in the division despite several pieces of the Elite Eight team returning and Harris’ arrival.

“We wanted the focus of our basketball program to be on the basketball,’’ said Tennessee senior wing Steven Pearl, whose scrappy 15 minutes didn’t go unnoticed. “I think [my dad] has handled it great. You can’t tell any difference with his coaching this team. He has acted normal. Off the court we talk about it, but he’s handling it very well. He’s done a good job of keeping it away, from it being a distraction.’’

The University of Tennessee and the Southeastern Conference had made it difficult to ignore. The school self-imposed penalties on Pearl and his staff, from docking salary to taking them off the recruiting road after Pearl misled NCAA investigators about high school recruits at a Pearl-housed barbeque. And then SEC commissioner Mike Slive put the focus back on Pearl with his unique eight-gamedays suspension to start league play, which doesn’t prevent Pearl from traveling with the team, coaching them in practice or -- in the middle of the suspension -- coaching the Vols at Connecticut on Jan. 22.

With that as a backdrop, the Vols arrived in New York perceived as sort of a team turmoil.

Well, they hardly fit the part. The only disruption Tennessee had here was backup point guard Trae Golden’s 102-degree fever that kept him out of the game against Villanova. Pearl said it was going to be a problem prior to tipoff because of Villanova’s guards.

But point guard Melvin Goins, a backup last season and now a starter, and Skylar McBee among others (including Hopson), handled the Nova guards quite well as Corey Fisher went 1-for-10 for three points (after scoring 26 in the semis) and Maalik Wayns went 3-for-11 for 11 points. The trio of Fisher, Wayne and Corey Stokes -- the same group that combined for 61 points against UCLA -- tallied just 25 against the Vols.

Villanova coach Jay Wright warned his guards about driving against Tennessee’s bigs and said they might have to make an extra pass. He foresaw that the Cats wouldn’t be able to get to the rim -- and they didn’t.

“What impressed me the most was how physical they all were, from Melvin Goins to Skylar McBee to Tobias Harris, their physicality,’’ Wright said.

The Vols had great balance against Nova, shutting down the Wildcats on 3s (4-of-21) and then hitting 3s at a more efficient manner on their end (6-of-16). Harris’ ability to be a point forward -- to take the ball and drive on his own to the hoop -- makes him a tough mismatch. Wright noticed.

“I want to win and I’m trying to do everything I can to help this team win,’’ said Harris, the freshman from Long Island.

[+] EnlargeTennessee
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesA team many expected to lose its first game in New York instead won two en route to the NIT title.
“I think you saw what he was capable of, making tough plays,’’ said Pearl of Harris, who finished with 15 points and nine boards. “We put the ball in his hands a lot. He was recruited to play that point forward. He can be a good passer too. We need him to score. He’s an inside-out player and those are tough matchups.’’

The NIT was also the official arrival of Scotty Hopson as a go-to scorer. Hopson was a celebrated recruit as a McDonald’s All-American, but admittedly took a backseat the past two seasons. At SEC media day last month, he said he needed to be much more assertive.

Mission accomplished in New York. He was named the NIT’s MVP after scoring a team-high 18 (to go along with 19 against VCU). Cameron Tatum’s 17 showed how balanced offensively this team can be throughout the season. And the gritty play of another New Yorker, forward Brian Williams (12 points and seven boards), only adds to the Vols’ toughness.

“We were an Elite Eight team last year, but this is a new team with a lot of new guys,’’ Pearl said. “Our depth will always be a factor, but we played hard and were unselfish. We can rebound and we can defend.’’

On Dec. 11 at the SEC-Big East Invitational, Tennessee plays Pittsburgh at the CONSOL Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then the Vols have yet another Big East date Jan. 22 at UConn. And in between, Tennessee hosts USC and Memphis as well as a sneaky good College of Charleston. So there are plenty of potential potholes on the nonconference schedule.

As for league play, picking Florida, Kentucky or Vanderbilt ahead of Tennessee in the SEC East is still not a reach, based on the rosters and the flashes each of shown at times already this season. Georgia has been a bit of disappointment so far, but the Bulldogs haven’t had SEC preseason player of the year Trey Thompkins at full strength yet. Still, all those other teams have lost. The Vols have not. And they have the best win of that group so far.

“We understand that we’re not a great basketball team and we can’t get carried away and say we’re the best team in the country,’’ Steven Pearl said. “We beat a good Villanova team. We’ve got to stay grounded. Playing Pitt could be a different animal. But we’re excited for the test.’’

The players were certainly euphoric after the game, jumping on the back of Bruce Pearl at center court. Pearl kept saying the right things -- that this wasn’t about him, but rather about the team. And on this night at least, he was right. The shift from off the court to on the court was real.

“We had to get the issues focused on the court,’’ Williams said. “That’s what we wanted.’’

And that’s what they got.

Hopson, New Yorkers lift Vols at MSG

November, 25, 2010

NEW YORK -- Tennessee came to New York hoping to find an identity, regardless of whom the Volunteers played.

So far, the definition of this team is and may have to be its defense.

And if Brian Williams can continue his maturation as a complement to heralded freshman and fellow New Yorker Tobias Harris -- or vice versa -- then this team should be fine amid the loaded SEC East.

The Vols kept upstart Virginia Commonwealth just out of reach in Wednesday night’s 77-72 victory in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. The lead was just one point at halftime despite VCU shooting less than 20 percent on 3s and less than 24 percent overall. The Rams shot better in the second half, but when it mattered most, Tennessee was there to defend, block a shot and finish the necessary play.

[+] EnlargeScotty Hopson
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesScotty Hopson (left) and Brian Williams combined for 27 points and 24 boards against VCU.
“We’ve been an up-and-down team since I’ve been here, but we were able to drop back and play defense,’’ said UT’s Scotty Hopson, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. “We’re putting this together and when we do we’ll be a team to reckon with.’’

The plan for the Vols is to ensure that Williams, who has shed weight and is playing some of the best basketball of his career, can be effective alongside the heralded Harris.

Harris, a Long Island native, finished with 15 points and four boards. Williams had a team-high 13 rebounds (out of the team's impressive 54) and many were extremely timely for the Vols. He also added nine points and a pair of key blocks. Every freshman needs a mentor when he arrives in college basketball and the once-maligned Williams has become Harris' for the time being.

“He’s helped me a lot,’’ Harris said. “He’s a big player inside. He rebounds very well. He did a lot of key things for us down the stretch. He’s a great passer and with me we can be a great inside-out tandem.’’

Harris has the face-up game. Williams the post game.

“I think we’re complementing each other very well,’’ Williams said.

But the need is for the two of them to be defensive anchors. VCU didn’t pose the type of threat inside that the Vols will see from Villanova in Friday’s championship game or against any of the teams in the SEC East, notably Georgia’s Trey Thompkins.

As has been well-documented, the Vols are dealing with constant controversy because of the NCAA investigation and the admission of guilt from head coach Bruce Pearl. An NCAA notice of allegations will bring that back when it comes out sometime in December. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said Wednesday that the investigation is complete and the report is being written, so the school hopes to receive the document -- which will also include football and baseball -- sometime soon so it can respond and get in front of the NCAA committee on infractions as soon as possible.

But for now at least, maybe this quality win and the prospect of playing a top-10 team (Villanova) in a tournament title game will go a long way toward putting the attention on the team.

“This victory takes what’s happening off the court of our minds,’’ Williams said. But when asked if it had been a distraction, he quickly said, “Not for us. We’re focused on the basketball.’’

And it showed Wednesday with a solid defensive effort. It wasn’t up-and-down Tennessee basketball. But for now, the Vols don’t have to do that. They just have to ensure that they can defend inside, score enough in the low post and make sure the most talented players -- notably Harris and Hopson -- get the ball at the right time.

“We’re going to be a tough team,’’ said Tennessee’s Cameron Tatum. “We won’t get pushed around. For a couple of years we’ve tried to have that as our identity. That’s what we’re trying to form.’’

When you hear "$4 million locker room," you probably think: "Neato!" Or you think, "Man, $4 million for a locker room? That seems grossly unnecessary!" After this "MTV Cribs"-style tour of Oklahoma State's recently finished basketball locker room facilities, it's safe to say both reactions are valid.

Those facilities were privately funded -- which, in OSU Cowboys-land, roughly translates to "T. Boone Pickens" -- so there's no complaint about taxpayer money to be had here. (Which, given the state's struggles to fund current education measures, is undoubtedly a good thing).

The locker room comes complete with OSU logo bathrobes, which you can see gracing the bodies of Cowboys freshmen and video tour leaders Mike Cobbins, Brian Williams and Markel Brown. There's also height-sensitive hair dryers, marble staircases, illuminated locker-room nameplates, a lounge that looks like over-the-top nice mod-themed Las Vegas nightclub, some weird orange plating on the walls, and flat screen televisions in every nook and cranny available. Which means it's exactly what you thought it would be when you heard the words "$4 million locker room." It's really, really nice. It's also really, really silly.

The Cowboys aren't the best example here -- Pickens makes them a bit of an outlier in the college hoops world -- but the new locker room is also emblematic of the modern arms race in college hoops. Facilities are as big a part of recruiting as anything else, and having the newest, most advanced, poshest accommodations for your players is as important to prospects as having a winning tradition and a charismatic coach.

In that case, consider Oklahoma State the USSR of the college hoops facilities war. Meanwhile, Pickens and company are still building. Your move ... everyone.

(Hat tip: The Dagger)
When Tyler Smith and three fellow Tennessee Volunteers were caught with a handgun, a bag of marijuana, and an open container of alcohol on New Year's Day, Tennessee's season was supposed to be finished. Instead, the Volunteers rallied, recovering from the dismissal of Smith and the suspensions of Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams, and Melvin Goins by beating Kansas nine days later and eventually getting all the way to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament's toughest region. Smith's loss didn't hold the Volunteers back. In fact, it was easy to forget all about him.

Still, it's worth revisiting why exactly Smith and company had a handgun in the first place. After all, getting caught with marijuana and an open container of alcohol is already bad enough, especially if you're someone for whom criminal activity can become a public issue. But it's even worse to have a handgun with an altered serial number on your person. Why? That's the most confusing part. Why the gun?

On Monday morning, speaking for the first time since his arrest and dismissal, Smith attempted to explain just that:
Tyler Smith, Tennessee's top-rated basketball player, said he bought the gun that brought down his college career because someone had threatened to kill his 3-year-old son. He's never said that before now. And he still won't go to the police. Last November in Knoxville, Smith, who lived off campus, had much of his personal property stolen. The former Giles County High School star said he was about to call the police, but the threats came first.

He said the first text message threatened his life. The second promised to kill his son. Smith said he knows who did it, but he never called the police. Instead, two days later, he bought a Taurus pistol for protection. "I'm the one who put myself into that situation with the gun," Smith said recently, speaking publicly about the incident for the first time. "But a lot of people don't know the whole situation."

The story makes sense, and it fits in well with the refrain we often hear when a high-profile athlete is caught with a gun: I needed it to protect myself. And I get that. I really do. For professional athletes, it behooves one to hire a couple of bodyguards for personal protection rather than take the pistol into your elastic waistband, Plaxico Burress-style. That same opportunity isn't afforded to amateur athletes, who don't have the money to pay for guards. They have to go a different way.

Which is why Tyler Smith should have gone to the cops. Immediately. Why didn't he? Smith has a plausible explanation for that, too:
Smith said police asked why he hadn't reported them. Smith said he responded by saying the threats specifically stated for him not to go to police. "Two or three guys," Smith said last week, referring to the threat makers. "I knew them, I knew them, I knew them."

"I never even thought about using it," Smith. "I thought if word got around that I had protection, that would keep them away."

Again, I get it. Or maybe I don't get it -- I've never been threatened with violence -- but I at the very least can empathize. You're scared. You've got people threatening your life and the life of your loved ones. You've got stuff getting stolen from your house. They're telling you not to go to the cops. You might be slightly uncomfortable getting cops involved anyway. I know I would be. The walls are closing in.

So you take matters into your own hands, hoping the knowledge that you're capable of violence keeps your threat-makers from turning their threats into action. And what happens? You get caught, you get in trouble, and your alibi -- plausible though it may be -- has little on record to back it up.

There is a lesson to be learned here, especially for young athletes who feel threatened: Tell your coach. Tell your advisers. Tell the cops. Absolutely nothing good can come from thinking you can handle such threats on your own. Tyler Smith's story sounds all too familiar, and while it's easy to empathize, it's hard not to think Smith should have known better. Because closing walls or no, he should have.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Tennessee has no business being in the Sweet 16.

UT's season since Jan. 1 has been just about as dysfunctional as possible and yet like so many teams, the Vols found themselves at the right time.

Scotty Hopson
Stew Milne/US PresswireScotty Hopson scores two of his 17 points on this dunk against Ohio.
Tennessee had just won at Memphis on New Year's Eve day and the Vols were looking like a real contender in the SEC East. Then Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams were arrested on misdemeanor gun, drug and alcohol charges during a traffic stop in Knoxville on New Year's Day.

Smith was suspended and ultimately dismissed. Williams pleaded guilty to drug possession and was suspended for nine games (sat out 10). Tatum pleaded guilty to speeding and all charges were dismissed against Goins. The last two were suspended for four games and sat for five.

"Jan. 1 to now? Oh yeah,'' said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl about how surprised he is with what has occurred. "But I can't control it. We were just going to prepare for Charlotte and see what happens.''

Tennessee beat Charlotte, No. 1 Kansas, Auburn and then-No. 21 Ole Miss in overtime -- all at home -- before extending the streak with a road win at Alabama. As the season progressed, the Vols dropped some games but also knocked off No. 2 Kentucky at home late in the season and then pulled off a major win at Mississippi State to end the conference season -- a loss that likely cost the Bulldogs an NCAA at-large berth.

Tennessee senior Wayne Chism said the Vols' team of six scholarship players and three walk-ons was a tight unit. And as each of the three suspended players came back they were welcomed by their teammates.

Williams said he couldn't get over how much the Tennessee fans, staff and players accepted him back after his mistake in judgment.

"It gave me a different perspective on basketball, on how hard you have to work at this high level and how people take basketball for granted,'' Williams said. "I saw how much I miss it.''

"To the outside world, it was great that everyone doubted us,'' Chism said. "But our fans stayed with us. We never stopped being together.''

And it showed. The Vols grinded out a win against San Diego State in the first round here and then was able to win much more of an uptempo game against Ohio in the second round.

"Coach said we can win a slow-down game and when a team speeds up the game, too,'' Chism said. "We would win a game in the 60s and one in the 70s and 80s. We can play at either speed.''

What Pearl has also done in easily his most challenging and successful coaching season is ensure that everyone on the roster is ready. Goins came back into the fold and made the decisive 3-pointer against the Aztecs. Against the Bobcats on Saturday, Pearl used Josh Bone for 10 quality minutes off the bench. Bone scored seven points, grabbed four boards and was 3-of-4 from the field. Bone didn't play against San Diego State and hadn't played in 10 of the last 11 games. During the suspension-filled homestand, he played 26 minutes in the win over Ole Miss.

Bottom line: This Tennessee team is as loose as you'll see. The Vols are relishing this newfound role of being discarded and not expected to succeed. And that seems to be the trend this weekend. Expect nothing. Tennessee has never been to the Elite Eight. That alone is amazing. Can you imagine if this team is the one that finally gets through to that level? Beat either Georgia Tech or Ohio State in St. Louis and these Vols will make school history. Who had that once Smith was dismissed?

If you said yes, you can't be serious.

"We're not a better team,'' Pearl said. "Our defense and rebounding has really picked up and we have more Brian Williams, more Steven Pearl, Skylar McBee [who hit the clinching 3-pointer against Kansas] and while we've improved defensively and rebounding, I'm not sure we're a better offensive team without Tyler.''

Indeed, every person wearing Orange should feel a part of this potentially historic run in Knoxville.

"The lesson is that the 10th or 11th man stayed ready for their opportunity,'' Pearl said. "But this is not a time of the year to reflect. But I can say at that time on Jan. 1, I didn't know what we had. We had six scholarship players and three to four walk-ons and we had to get them ready to play.''

The Vols have morphed into an evolving team with players coming back onto the roster since and are just now figuring out how much they can still improve. That's a good thing. They've still got at least one game left to play.

Shaky Tennessee pulls away from LSU

March, 11, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The stench from this one may resonate for a while.

For Tennessee’s sake, “a while” had better not last longer than 24 hours.

There’s no other way to describe Tennessee’s 59-49 victory over LSU on Thursday as anything other than a real stinkeroo. Up next for the No. 13-ranked Vols on Friday is an Ole Miss team fighting for its NCAA tournament life.

If not for their defense, the Vols (24-7) would have been in real trouble against the Tigers. They were 4-of-23 from 3-point range and finished with 17 turnovers and six assists in the kind of performance that was anything but befitting of a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

At one point in the second half, somebody turned around on press row and said, “One of these teams is going to the NCAA tournament. Can you tell which one?”

The Tigers (11-20) just couldn’t make enough shots to stage a serious run at the Vols in the final minutes.

Tennessee struggled against LSU’s zone defense, although senior center Wayne Chism was able to maneuver his way for 17 points and 10 rebounds. Junior big man Brian Williams continues to play well for the Vols since returning from his suspension. He yanked down a game-high 14 rebounds.

One of the biggest concerns for the Vols is sophomore Scotty Hopson. He’d played well down the stretch in the regular season after drifting in and out of games the first part of the season. But he was a complete no-show Thursday and had no energy about him in an 0-for-8 performance from the field.

Updates from Knoxville and Starkville

January, 9, 2010
Tennessee’s Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams remain indefinitely suspended and won’t play against top-ranked Kansas Sunday in Knoxville.

All three are facing misdemeanor charges for their role in the New Year’s Day traffic arrest where there was marijuana and two guns in a rental car. The charges and added information that became available to Tennessee led to Friday's dismissal of senior forward Tyler Smith.

UT coach Bruce Pearl said earlier in the week that there could be different levels of involvement in the case as more information becomes available and that punishments could vary. According to a source, the Tennessee staff believes there could be some changing of the charges as either reduced or wiped clean.

Meanwhile, in the ongoing Renardo Sidney drama, a source with knowledge of the findings said the NCAA’s fact-finding release given to Misssissippi State on Friday didn’t convince the school that there was enough to keep Sidney out of the first 16 games. According to the source, there were no surprises in the findings, with one of the issues being that Sidney wasn’t honest about who picked him up in Los Angeles when he was in ninth grade.

The source said the school has been convinced for awhile now that there isn’t enough evidence to hold Sidney out of competition. There is at least one thought that the Bulldogs could agree with the facts and hope that the NCAA would agree that the punishment has already been served. But if MSU wants to challenge the facts, then it will drag out even longer.

For what it's worth, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury is no longer using Sidney in practice. Since he’s not being used in games, Stansbury has decided to have the staff work with him in individual workouts. If he is cleared at some point, he would work his way in as a backup.

Vols attempt to move on without Smith

January, 8, 2010
Prior to Friday’s decision to dismiss Tyler Smith, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl told there might be fairly different levels of involvement in the case and that could lead to different decisions. He said no decision had been made regarding Sunday's Kansas game, but that the three other players -- Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins -- remained indefinitely suspended.

AP Photo/Wade PayneBobby Maze must limit his turnovers for Tennessee to have a chance against KU.
But it seemed highly unlikely any of the three remaining players would be cleared for what is easily the biggest nonconference game on Tennessee’s home schedule.

Pearl said the crowd for Wednesday's win over Charlotte was a great help, rallying around the depleting Vols, especially once their huge lead was cut to six in the second half. Pearl said he anticipated a similar type of reaction from the Volunteer fans for the KU game. Tennessee had just six scholarship players for the Charlotte game and may have the same against the top-ranked Jayhawks.

For the Vols to have a chance forward Wayne Chism will have to rebound against Cole Aldrich, Pearl said. Scott Hopson and Renaldo Woolridge will have to make 3-pointers and Bobby Maze must limit turnovers against KU's Sherron Collins. Maze had only one turnover against Charlotte on Wednesday. J.P. Prince will also have to find ways to score. The Vols did defend well against the 49ers by limiting them to 27.6 percent on 3s, 36.2 percent overall. But obviously there is a talent upgrade with the Jayhawks.

Meanwhile, according to a number of NBA sources, Smith was already becoming a marginal draft pick with his play this season. He declared for the NBA draft in the offseason, but withdrew mainly because he wasn’t getting any traction on being a first- or even second-round draft pick. Smith was averaging 11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game this season. All but his assist numbers were down from 2008-09, when he averaged 17.4 points and 5.8 rebounds a game.

One NBA personnel source said that executives will have to decide if Smith is worth digging into the facts of the case. The source said many times a big man is more often given the benefit of the doubt than a wing (where there are countless options) unless they are an exceptional talent.

Tennessee was projected to be Kentucky’s toughest nemesis in the SEC East with its full compliment of players. But if Williams, Goins and Tatum don’t return, the Vols will likely be vying with Florida and Vanderbilt, desperately trying to separate itself from the pack. In its three most significant nonconference games, Tennessee lost by 22 points at USC, lost by one to Purdue at the Paradise Jam, and won at Memphis on New Year's Eve day. The Vols open the SEC against Auburn on Jan. 14.