March 18, 2011
CHARLOTTE - After a week of distractions regarding head coach Bruce Pearl's job security, it was a relief to finally get the student-athletes on the floor and let the basketball do the talking. Unfortunately the message his Tennessee team sent with their play was one of a defeated team. As they failed to rally from a second half defect and eventually fell to Michigan 75-45.
Tennessee forced the issue early, taking advantage of a Michigan frontline that could not compete with Tennessee's strength and size. Freshman forward Tobias Harris exploded for 19 points on 6-6 shooting and converted all seven free throw attempts in the first half. Tennessee clearly made Michigan guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. a priority, with Cameron Tatum shadowing his every move on the defensive end.
All eyes were centered on Pearl, and there he was screaming out offensive and defensive assignment with large arm motions and his familiar stomp. So basically it was just another game for the head coach of the Volunteers.
Michigan caught fire near the end of the first half driven by back-to-back threes after starting the half shooting 1 for 9 from deep. Pearl remained calm on the bench, but the frustrated look on Cameron Tatum's face after another missed opportunity showed the Volunteers getting sluggish. With less than 30 seconds remaining, Harris changed that all with a slam dunk of a Brian Williams assist. Michigan quickly drove the length of the floor as Darius Morris converted on a hook shot just before the buzzer. It was the perfect momentum swinger before the break, and the beginning of the end for the Volunteers.
Then the Wolverines came out of the halftime break with hopes of landing a knockout punch early. They brought the Big Blue faithful to their feet with a 21-4 run in the first eight minutes of the half. Tennessee struggled to answer any of Michigan's challenges. It was difficult to figure out whether it was Tennessee's inability to fire themselves up or cool the Wolverines, but the Volunteers looked helpless as they fell into a 14 point deficit by the first official timeout.
By the midpoint of the second half, the Volunteers had begun to lose their will. The Wolverines calmly milked a significant double-digit lead while the Volunteers defeated themselves possession after possession. Being outworked on the boards, Tennessee was outrebounded 35-24 by a team which they could have easily overpowered inside. When it was time for Tennessee to dig in deep and mount a comeback, they took poor jump shots and added to their count of 18 turnovers.
So what does that reflect about their head coach? This could have been any other two teams in the tournament and you would have doubted the team's preparation. But with this specific case for Tennessee, it is the first spot you put the blame. When the media began questioning a somber Volunteer bunch regarding their coach after the game, they did not shy away from the controversy caused by athletic director Mike Hamilton.
"Of course it was a distraction, off-court and what not," remarked senior guard Melvin Goins. "But it is our responsibility as players to step up."
Junior guard Scotty Hopson also put the responsibility on the veteran players, for not pulling the unit together as a team. As for freshman Tobias Harris' explanation of the meltdown against Michigan?
"We just quit," Harris answered plainly.
What will likely get lost in the mix is a phenomenal run by Michigan to start the half. The Wolverines have shown how dangerous they can be recently, entering Friday's contest having won seven of their last ten. But even with Tatum stuck to Tim Hardaway, Jr. like glue, Michigan found production elsewhere on the floor.
Michigan head coach John Beilein deserves a ton of credit for getting his team ready to knockout a beaten giant. After all Tennessee has been to the NCAA tournament all six years under Pearl's tenure, reaching the Sweet Sixteen four times. Beilein, in just his fourth season as head coach of the Wolverines has already gotten Big Blue to the tournament twice. Considering the issues surrounding the program in the last two decades, Beilein's early success is reason for Wolverine fans to believe in hoops once again.
Beilein now returns to the floor, wondering how he can figure out a way to beat Duke. Bruce Pearl, on the other hand, returns to Knoxville. His challenge is far different: figure out a way to keep his job.
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