If Bruce had to pick a year for things to go south, 2008-09 was pretty much perfect. There were several built-in excuses, some valid, that helped explain away what had happened:
- Tennessee was one of the youngest teams in the country. Yes, they had lots of Top 100 recruits and good returning talent, but at an average of 1.34 years of experience, Tennessee was well below the national average of 1.72 years of experience in 2008-09.
- Tennessee wouldn’t shoot that poorly again. Despite a fairly healthy amount of shooting talent on the roster, Tennessee’s 3PT% of 31.5% was the program’s worst in 12 years. Whether it’s a dead cat bounce or actual improvement, that shouldn’t be that bad two years in a row.
- Nobody was leaving. Well, Ryan Childress did, but the 2009-10 team would return 93% of scoring from a team that was four points away from an SEC championship and three away from the Round of 32.
- Again, this was literally the only agreed-upon Meh Year under Pearl. What are the odds of two in a row?
What Pearl had coming back was good, particularly the year after a horrendous SEC performance resulted in just three NCAAT bids and no seeds better than LSU’s 8. The pollsters felt similarly, ranking Tennessee 10th nationally. The program was still trending upwards. They could still be the class of the SEC. Things were continuing to break Tennessee’s way in a fashion they simply hadn’t in times past.
Or at least they were.
John Calipari was introduced as Kentucky’s newest, most expensive head coach on April Fools’ Day, appropriately enough. Tennessee’s rise had happened to coincide with the worst four-year period in Kentucky basketball’s modern history. The final two years of Tubby Smith brought Kentucky a pair of 8 seeds and a pair of Round of 32 exits. That would be an acceptable two-year run at all but five programs in college basketball. Kentucky happens to be one of those five. The Wildcats would move to hire Texas A&M’s Billy Gillispie, who teetered between semi-disaster and outright disaster in a marriage that ended after two years.
During this four-year run, Kentucky managed to finish better than 9-7 in SEC play only once (Gillispie’s first year of 2007-08, which resulted in Kentucky receiving an 11 seed). Again, that’s not acceptable at Kentucky. The Wildcats had to swing, and swing big. The best option available happened to be Calipari, a man who had turned the University of Memphis into a legitimate national force year-over-year. Calipari immediately brought in a freshman class that featured three five-star recruits in John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Daniel Orton. Just like that, Tennessee’s brief run as the potential kings of SEC basketball was supposedly coming to an end. Kentucky entered the 2009-10 season 4th nationally and didn’t leave the top five of the AP Poll once.
Tennessee had to respond. It was in Pearl’s nature to respond in attention-grabbing ways, dating back to his very first year at Tennessee. The Vols would have a few different chances in the schedule to grab serious attention, the first of which was a game against #6 Purdue in late November and a home battle with #1 Kansas in mid-January. However, they did have other games to play. Tennessee started the year in a satisfactory fashion; they goofed around with Austin Peay for a half before driving them into the dirt by 29 points.
Next up, and the final game before the aforementioned trip to hopefully play Purdue in the Virgin Islands, was one final mainland tune-up game against UNC-Asheville. Tennessee had already played them twice under Pearl, with both outings being fairly routine 13- and 18-point wins. The spread isn’t listed anywhere from this game, but we can fairly safely assume it was in the 20-25 point range. Fans didn’t expect anything exciting; the official attendance was a hair over 17,000 and feels like even less than that when you watch the game.
If you go to any random non-conference home game against an overmatched and overwhelmed opponent, you don’t typically expect much excitement; generally, you’re going to get out of the house and to have a nice night at the arena with your wife or friends. Maybe you’ll have some popcorn. You don’t expect nearly every program record relevant to the cause to be broken.
NEXT PAGE: Time out of mind