Eight Games, Pt. 4: Pearl of the Quarter

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

On the heels of the inarguable Greatest Season in Tennessee Basketball History, Bruce Pearl had to re-tool on the fly. Gone were Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith; in came four Top 100 recruits to give Tennessee a total of six on the roster, along with JUCO newbie Bobby Maze and a few year-older guys in Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, and J.P. Prince. (Also Brian Williams. Never forget Brian Williams.) Those Top 100 recruits, in order of highest-to-lowest ranking, were:

  • Scotty Hopson (#11 in 2008 class), a 6’7″ guard expected to be a phenomenal shooter who could play the 2, 3, and 4;
  • Emmanuel Negedu (#43 in 2008 class), a 6’7″ forward who came to Knoxville after initially committing to Arizona and was scouted as being dominant at the rim;
  • Renaldo Woolridge (#70 in 2008 class), the 6’9″ son of 12-year NBA player Orlando Woolridge who had a burgeoning rap career on the side;
  • Cameron Tatum (#96 in 2006 class), a 6’7″ player who took a prep school year and redshirted the 2007-08 season who was expected to be an excellent shooter.

Combining these new guys with the returners, along with Tennessee’s upward momentum as a program, convinced the media that Tennessee was unlikely to take much of a step back at all. The Vols began the 2008-09 season ranked #14 nationally, obliterated their first five opponents (including a 90-78 win over #21 Georgetown), and by the time mid-December rolled around, the only blemish on their record was a defensible 83-74 loss to #9 Gonzaga where the Bulldogs hit 55% of their threes to Tennessee’s 29.2%. That kind of stuff happens because college basketball is a weird, variance-driven sport.

On December 13, 2008, Tennessee traveled to Philadelphia to take on Temple for just the second time in 35 years. They probably should’ve stayed home.

Three days later, Tennessee would hold a Marquette team featuring Wesley Matthews and Jimmy Butler to a 45.8% eFG% in a 12-point victory. Back to normal! Then they had to survive a Belmont upset push for a full 40 minutes, escaping with a 79-77 win. It was kind of like this for…well, most of the season. Every good thing would almost immediately be followed by pain; every source of joy stamped out by a newer, larger source of frustration. Tennessee would lose on the road to an unranked Kansas squad, at home to Gonzaga in overtime, and wouldn’t be ranked again after January 12th, 2009.

A steadying win on the road versus a bad Georgia team was immediately followed by the Jodie Meeks Game, where Meeks dropped 54 points on Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena as one of the worst Kentucky teams in 30 years defeated Tennessee by 18 points.

A rare double-digit road win at Memorial Gym versus Vandy was followed by an excruciating two-point home loss to Memphis and another home loss to an LSU team that was their toughest competition in the worst SEC in 25 years. A surprising demolition of Florida at TBA (which would be followed later in the season by a road win/sweep of the Gators) gave Tennessee fans hope before a two-point win over a 2-14 Arkansas team and a horrid road loss to an Auburn team that posted a 50% OREB% yet again derailed hopes. As Tennessee turned the page into March, what looked like a seriously promising season as recently as New Year’s Day had turned into the first true disappointment of the Bruce Pearl era: 17-10, 8-5 in the SEC. Tennessee was still pretty likely to get into the NCAA Tournament, but they needed wins sorely.

Out of seemingly nowhere, these Volunteers went on a run. Tennessee went 3-1 to close the year, the only blemish being (of course) a 70-67 home loss with a buzzer-beater against Alabama on Senior Day.

And for once, the SEC Tournament was not a source of utter humiliation. Tennessee would demolish that same Alabama team by 24 on Friday. They’d outlast Auburn on Saturday. The bracket broke wide open. The 1 and 2 seed from the West were eliminated; all that was left was a Mississippi State team that finished its regular season at 19-12, 9-7 SEC. That wasn’t a team that would make the NCAA Tournament field without a victory. Tennessee had defeated them just 18 days prior at home. They were locked into the NCAA Tournament, likely somewhere in the 7-8 seed lines with a win. It seemed easy enough. Until Tennessee just…couldn’t hit anything at all. Tennessee had one of their worst two-point shooting days the program has seen in recent memory: 12-for-42, or 28.6%. Tyler Smith, who was genuinely very reliable on twos his entire career, went 1-for-12. No one could bring it home.

Tennessee still somehow led this game late. Then Phil Turner, who entered the final 90 seconds with five points in the game, scored seven to push State to a 64-61 lead. Tennessee would get one final shot, courtesy of Smith…

Of course it didn’t go in. A genuinely frustrating season doesn’t end that way. Neither did it in the NCAA Tournament, where 9-seed Tennessee had to battle back from a halftime deficit against 8-seed Oklahoma State only to give up a three-point play late to lose, 77-75. (Footnote: This is a game I drew the line on watching again. There is a Real Story that goes with this game for me personally which requires substantial explanation.)

For the first time in Pearl’s four-year tenure, fans had reason to doubt which direction the program was going in. This season shouldn’t have been what it ended up becoming. The recovery would have to begin as soon as Pearl could make it happen.

NEXT PAGE: Show biz kids

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