Eight Games, Pt. 4: Pearl of the Quarter


It’s still the score that jumps out, obviously: 124 to 49. A 75-point gap. As of the time of writing, it’s tied for the 13th-largest margin of victory over a Division I opponent since 1949-50, which is as far back as College Basketball Reference’s database goes. Surely a team that could lose a game by 75 points, regardless of the opponent, must be a pretty awful team.

…oh. Well, I mean, 301st of 334 isn’t good, but look at that record and particularly that conference record. Tennessee beat a team that went 11-7 in their Division I conference by 75 freaking pointsAnd it could’ve been worse had Tennessee managed even one point in the final two minutes!

This game achieved exactly what it possibly could, which was cause onlookers to gawk at Tennessee in a positive manner. Momentum was back. Tennessee would travel to the Virgin Islands, demolish East Carolina by 39, escape a sweaty DePaul game by 4, and then play #6 Purdue in the final like everyone expected. There are three main things I remember about this game:

  1. This was one of the very last years that a major college basketball game could reasonably slip through TV contract cracks. As such, it was televised on FOX College Sports, a station that almost no one I have ever met has admitted to having. As such, I watched this game on a stream on Justin.TV…which you may now know as Twitch;
  2. This game is the first time I remember seeing Samantha Steele, now Samantha Ponder;
  3. This game was extremely tight the entire way through and also featured one billion foul calls.

Tennessee and Purdue, two teams that played physical basketball, combined for 49 fouls and 54 free throws in a game that somehow did not reach overtime. The lead was never more than six points for either side. Tennessee had the ball last after Purdue missed a pair of free throws with 18 seconds left. Bobby Maze penetrated the lane and kicked it out to a wide-open Wayne Chism – career 32.3% three-point shooter – who lofted up his open attempt…that did not go in. Purdue 73, Tennessee 72. Big deal; you can afford those losses.

Tennessee motored on, breezed through some buy games, then traveled to Southern California for a December 19th battle against – you guessed it – Kevin O’Neill’s Trojans. I am not sure how this pairing ever made sense to anyone, but it was a pairing that existed. Now, we know that these Trojans had a legitimate future semi-star on their team in Nikola Vucevic. Then, however, all I knew was that Tennessee was traveling across the country to play a 4-4 USC team with losses to Loyola Marymount and Nebraska. They had one of the worst offenses in college basketball. It turned into one of the worst days of Bruce Pearl’s entire career.

Kevin O’Neill, basketball terrorist, had done it again. Tennessee lost 77-55, went 2-for-22 on threes, and made it known to the public fairly early on what kind of team this would be. Sometimes you get 124-49; sometimes you get this. They’d recover to beat North Carolina A&T in a shootout (99-78) then traveled to a middling Memphis squad on New Year’s Eve and squeaked out a 66-59 win.

On December 31, 2009, Tennessee basketball was ranked 14th nationally. They didn’t have a Top 25 win yet, but they had a program that at least looked capable of ending the season somewhere in the top 15-20. If you’re a top 15-20 team, you should probably make the Sweet Sixteen and have a decent shot at the Elite Eight. Despite that nasty USC loss, things still seemed pretty okay.

On January 1, 2010, the trajectory of the program was altered forever.

The Tennessean, January 2, 2010

The day after the Memphis win, Cameron Tatum was driving Smith, Williams, and Melvin Goins around campus. It was 11:30 AM, New Year’s Day, and they were going a little faster than they should’ve. They got pulled over, the car was searched, and what was found changed things quickly. Smith was charged with firearm possession, particularly of the variety with an altered serial number; Tatum got the same plus an alcohol charge; Goins and Williams got drug possession charges.

As the headline above says, all four were immediately suspended by Pearl. There wouldn’t be any new news for several days. Pearl seemed to want to wait on an updated investigation status; Tennessee soldiered on as a basketball team missing a combined 30 points per game. The entire season felt like it was up in the air at this time, if you’re willing to remember. Tennessee was only technically missing one starter, but overnight, a nine-man rotation had been whittled down to five. In fact, only six scholarship players were available for the January 6 game against Charlotte: the four remaining starters (Hopson, Chism, Prince, Maze) along with sophomore Woolridge and freshman Kenny Hall.

Tennessee would somehow get through that Charlotte game with no issues, winning 88-71 after leading by 22 at halftime. The troubling thing was what came next: #1 Kansas, in Thompson-Boling Arena, four days later. Tennessee had given 17 minutes to freshman walk-on Skylar McBee, tying the most he’d gotten in a game to date. Josh Bone, a Southern Illinois transfer, played 13 after playing seven minutes in the entire month of December. What Tennessee had was an extremely thin roster due to take on the best team in college basketball.

The odds seemed bleak. Things got bleaker.

The Leaf-Chronicle, January 9, 2010

After all of Tyler Smith’s trouble in getting to the University of Tennessee in the first place, his career ended prematurely at the hands of his arrest. Tennessee received closure on his status, but not in a way anyone had hoped for. So there it was: Tennessee would play the best team in America with six scholarship players, two walk-ons, and the coach’s son as available bodies.

Because college basketball’s TV contracts don’t necessarily have opt-outs in the same way other sports do, this was the CBS Game of the Week on a snowed-out Sunday afternoon. (This was the lead-in.) (Also, the lone copy of this game online was filmed via a potato, so prep yourself.) It started about as well as Tennessee could’ve hoped for, as Chism hit his first three-point attempt. Then Kansas went on a 14-3 run. Kansas led 16-10 after the first quarter of the game, and after the last week, a game on pace for a 64-40 Tennessee loss felt pretty appropriate.

Then something really strange began to happen: Renaldo Woolridge hit a three.

Xavier Henry would respond 28 seconds later to push it back to Kansas, 19-13. Then Woolridge hit another.

Henry missed his second response. 15 seconds later, Woolridge, by way of a Steven Pearl pass, hit his third three-point attempt in a row.

I think that if you aren’t a Tennessee follower, this requires a lot of explanation. Prior to Smith’s departure, Renaldo Woolridge was of almost no use to the Volunteers. He’d make occasional bench appearances, usually for about 7-8 minutes a game, do something goofy, then spend the other 32-33 minutes cheering from the sideline. He was Tennessee’s tenth man in what had been a steady nine-man rotation. He was getting less playing time than walk-on McBee.

Before January 10, 2010, Woolridge’s most famous contribution to Tennessee athletics was a song he wrote for Eric Berry’s 2009 Heisman Trophy campaign. It was played at every home football game in Neyland Stadium for the 2009 football season. Be warned that if you watch the video of “Eric Berry”, you will be teleported to a very specific time and place of 2009, one that cannot exist in 2021.

Woolridge had played a hair more in his freshman season of 2008-09, when Tennessee was a little more desperate for bodies. A player moderately ahead of his time, he attempted 69 threes to 21 two-pointers. His hit rate: 27.5%. Woolridge would play 4.5 seasons of college basketball, and in none of them did he hit more than 19 threes, convert more than 34.1% of his attempts, or ever average more than 10 minutes per game. For a former four-star recruit and the son of an NBA great, this was more than a little disappointing. Woolridge would close his career as a 29.1% three-point shooter.

This makes his accomplishment of hitting three of these shots in a row mathematically baffling. Simple math gives this event just a 2.5% chance of happening; logical reasoning makes it even more difficult to fathom. Kansas would finish the year as KenPom’s eighth-best defense in college basketball with the fourth-lowest eFG% allowed. Four different teams, including Missouri (who made the Round of 32), made three or fewer three-point attempts against Kansas. Woolridge, who ranks 35th of 39 players in terms of career 3PT% at Tennessee with at least 150 attempts, hit three three-pointers in a row.

It was probably that specific point where you wondered if something special might reasonably happen. Tennessee knew it. After a Cole Aldrich layup, Tennessee went on an 8-0 spurt to take a 27-21 lead. Kansas would fight back, and after an ill-advised final two possessions on defense, the game was tied 33-33 at the half.

Already, this was a bit better than most had anticipated. Surely, though, the other shoe would drop. Tennessee had about six non-destructive bodies available for this game; Kansas had five future NBA players on their roster with two on the bench. It was like you couldn’t quite allow yourself to believe just yet; Tennessee’s history, as outlined in this series, doesn’t allow you to believe for very long.

Around the time that J.P. Prince posted two steals within 30 seconds of each other, a feeling approximating joy began to permeate my cold (physically and spirtually) heart.

Maybe it was when Chism hit a three after Bobby Maze battled for a rebound to put Tennessee up seven.

Or it could’ve been Josh Bone – a player who, again, played SEVEN MINUTES OF BASKETBALL in the month of December – hitting a three off of a Sherron Collins turnover and Maze assist.

Slowly but surely, it became very serious. Tennessee had a 62-54 lead on #1 Kansas with 6:47 to play. KenPom’s numbers at the time of the game gave Tennessee roughly a 21.5% chance of winning. I’d be fine with saying the real odds were probably even lower than that. After Hopson hit those free throws to go up by eight, Tennessee’s win likelihood sat at 78.7%: a near mirror-image of where they’d started.

The issue with upsets is that, almost always, the other shoe does drop somewhat eventually. Tennessee stopped hitting their jumpers. Xavier Henry got more aggressive. So did Tyshawn Taylor. 2:26 after Tennessee had taken that eight-point lead, it was entirely erased as the two sat tied at 64. Maze would hit a jumper to make it 66-64 a little bit later, but this was going to be a dogfight to the end.

There are two very important scoring plays for Tennessee in the final four minutes. The first is one that’s been lost to the sands of time for many. That Maze shot was followed by Kansas putting the ball in Taylor’s hands. J.P. Prince stepped in and got the ball to Scotty Hopson, who gave Tennessee their 67th and 68th points.

A while later, the second comes. Tennessee pushed this lead out to 71-64. They then got a little loose with their end-of-game focus. Bobby Maze committed a turnover, which led to a Brady Morningstar free throw. Then Wayne Chism committed one, which led to Morningstar hitting a three to make it 71-68, Tennessee, with 1:10 to play.

Realistically speaking, Tennessee needed several points to feel good. This was a Kansas offense that made 40.4% of its threes and spent the entire season as one of the three best offenses in the game. Tennessee also needed to waste time. Combining these two ideas into one possession almost always makes for a mess that is generally only solved when a team has a true bucket-getter and special player. Tennessee’s main bucket-getter had been kicked off the team two days prior.

This possession, lasting 34 seconds of a 35-second shot clock, is an utter mess. Scotty Hopson drives the ball and nearly turns it over right back to Kansas with 50 seconds on the clock. Luckily for Hopson, the ball is deflected out of bounds. Then the possession resumes. The ball hangs at the S in Summitt, nearly 40 feet from the basketball, until there are eight seconds left to shoot. A ball screen gets shut down. The ball hits Woolridge.

At this point in time, Woolridge is 4-for-6 on three-point attempts. If he takes a seventh with the clock dwindling and enough space to get a shot off, few would fault him. Woolridge thinks about it, hesitates, then passes. The ball is in Skylar McBee’s hands. There’s four seconds on the shot clock and he’s hounded by a defender. McBee appears to not know how much time is left on the shot clock despite facing the far end of the court, where a shot clock is pretty obviously visible.

McBee grew up in Rutledge, a town of barely over 1,000 barely 40 minutes from Knoxville. McBee was born in Knoxville, but spent his childhood in this tiny town few have heard of. McBee had an impressive high school career and eventually received several Division I offers, including Winthrop, a perennial Big South title contender. McBee turned every offer he received down. He’d rather walk on at the school he dreamed of playing for. Before New Year’s Day, McBee had earned his spot as the ninth man in Tennessee’s nine-man rotation simply by way of a barrage of three-point attempts. McBee didn’t shoot often, but nearly every shot he’d take was a three. It was his shot.

McBee realizes there’s no time left to think about this. He ball-fakes and puts up a prayer.

God answered.

USA Today, January 11, 2010

The Tennessean, January 11, 2010

The next two months of basketball, to say it kindly, were a mess. Even the week after this was a mess, but it wasn’t basketball’s fault. Tennessee would post amazing performances (this win, the 81-55 win over Auburn soon after) and follow them up with absolute stinkers (15-point road loss to Georgia, a sweep to Vanderbilt). Even the wins would drive you nuts, such as an awful 59-54 February win over an LSU team that finished 191st in KenPom. Perhaps it is best to rely on the words of an old genius that once said “[they’ll] give us what we need; it may not be what we want.”

Occasionally, though, they’d give you what you wanted and then some.

But even that was followed by a 29-point blasting at the hands of Kentucky barely two weeks later.

The thing you have to remember about 2009-10 Tennessee basketball is that it was, indeed, a total mess. Tennessee’s 25-8 record entering the NCAA Tournament looks impressive in hindsight, but it was built off of the back of two true quality wins and a lot of middling competition. (The SEC ranked as only the fifth-best conference in basketball that season.) Against Top 50 KenPom opponents, Tennessee’s record was 7-6, and the only top 35 teams the Vols played after Purdue were Kansas and Kentucky. Depending on the night, Tennessee either looked like one of the five scariest teams in basketball or like a team destined to lose to an 11 seed.

Focus was optional, not mandatory. Time and space is a luxury, however, and Tennessee suddenly had lots of it. The football program was an utter disaster. Women’s basketball had lost in the Round of 64 for the first time ever the previous season. No one cared about baseball then. Every Tennessee student, staff member, fan, and follower needed something to believe in. The economy still hadn’t recovered properly; many would never see their old jobs again. This mess of a team was all we had, and we latched on like there was no tomorrow.

Then something funny began to happen: it all broke in Tennessee’s way. They’d survive a first-round upset bid by Kawhi Leonard and San Diego State.

Then their 3 seed opponent, Georgetown, lost to 14-seed Ohio by 14 points thanks to Ohio hitting 57% of their threes. Tennessee drew the version of Ohio that only hit 38% of their threes instead two days later, winning with ease.

This team (who did eventually get Goins, Tatum, and Williams back from suspension) suddenly was in the Sweet Sixteen again for the third time in four years. The opponent would be a pretty familiar one: Ohio State, this time led by Evan Turner, the college player of the year. Many fans braced themselves for more pain and a less-than-enchanting Tennessee exit; pain was all you could have, it seemed.

The game never seemed to get out of hand either way, and you could have reasonably scored it as a heavyweight fight. There was one true ‘run’ in the entire game: a 13-2 Tennessee run that took the score from 11-4 Ohio State to 17-13 Tennessee. Neither team led by more than seven points, and with 3:53 left heading to the final TV timeout, Tennessee led, 68-63.

Ten years prior, they’d led 8-seed North Carolina, 64-62 at the final break. Five points is more than two, but this was a chance to erase all sorts of demons. Then David Lighty got hot. It was a two-pointer off of a Turner offensive rebound that cut it from three to one. Then he decided it was time to take the lead.

Just like that, Tennessee trailed, 70-68. The game could’ve ended there. Tennessee just kept fighting. Chism got fouled and hit both. Then Lighty turned it over. Then Chism big-manned his opponents and made something special happen again, spinning in a layup to give Tennessee the 72-70 lead. On the other end 40 seconds later, Evan Turner hit a three to push the Buckeyes back on top.

44 seconds remained. J.P. Prince would miss a layup, and for a split-second, everything felt like it was crashing again. Then you saw large, rotund Brian Williams. Williams was a curiosity from the Bronx who hovered above 300 pounds for most of high school before coming to Tennessee. It was never a certainty that he would receive a lot of playing time; before New Year’s Day, he was a bench player that did a lot of rebounding and not much else. But he did a lot of rebounding then, and he’d do it for the rest of time.

I don’t know how many remember this, but Evan Turner missed a layup on the other end and Ohio State got the offensive rebound. But it was Bobby Maze who got the steal, it was Bobby Maze who hit two free throws, and it was Bobby Maze who made it 76-73, Volunteers. Ohio State had 13 seconds and time for one final shot. It had to be Turner. No other player could’ve taken it.

Tennessee shut the possession down beautifully, but Turner saw just a crack of daylight between him and a game-tying three. He rose up to take it.

J.P. Prince rose up to turn off the lights.

The Elite Eight, for the first time ever.

In the midst of the post-Ohio State madness, a man who’d taken a lot of abuse in his time at Tennessee got to be along for the ride. The man from Sweetwater had decided to return to the place where he’d seen a lot of losing and felt a lot of suffering.

Aaron Green was hired by Bruce Pearl prior to the 2009-10 season as a full-time staff member after spending a couple of seasons as a graduate assistant trying to break into big-time coaching. It wasn’t even his first turn as a grad assistant, mind you; he also served under Jerry Green for the 1999-00 season before heading to Cleveland (TN) High School to be their head basketball coach. Green won a lot of games at Cleveland (153 in six seasons), but he had higher aspirations.

What sounds like a fun job in video coordination is actually quite difficult. In this role, one has to craft a ton of video edits for scouting purposes, watch an unhealthy amount of college basketball, and look for all sorts of minor details that can create separation between team and opponent. It requires a tireless work ethic and, well, lots of hours. It’s sort of the unsung hero position in college basketball: you never hear of or about these guys on broadcasts, but they play a significant role in every college program in America.

I don’t know Green so I can’t confirm, but it would be reasonable to guess that Green watched a massive amount of Ohio State basketball to prepare Tennessee’s staff for this game. All of that work, just for one 40-minute game that could end your season or sustain it for 48 more hours.

13 years prior, Green was being screamed at by Kevin O’Neill relentlessly for the crime of not being a better basketball player. It would be hard to question his work ethic now. After this season ended, Green left the program to be Oak Ridge High School’s men’s basketball coach. He’s held that position ever since. There was nothing left to reclaim; nothing left to truly accomplish. Green had paved the road back home. It was time to take a new one.

The wait had felt like forever, but for two glorious days, all you could think about was “Elite Eight.” It was the response to any question. And when the day came, the game – against 5-seeded Michigan State – was as good as anyone could’ve hoped for. Tense the entire way through, stress-filled for all 40 minutes, and it came down to free throws because why wouldn’t it.

Hopson, down 69-68, went to the line for two. One went in. The other didn’t. Michigan State’s Raymar Morgan was fouled with two seconds left on a drive to the basket. One free throw went in. The other didn’t. Tennessee had one final shot from about 60 feet out. Prince, the spiritual leader, took it.

Season over. But even at the time, it wasn’t something you could be mad about. If this team – this frustrating, insane, mad villain group that could give you pure joy one night and pure anger another – could make the Elite Eight, what would happen if you kept giving Bruce Pearl time to turn this program into the best version of itself?

Time and space is a luxury. You never know how much you have of it, and you never know when yours will run out.

To be continued Wednesday.

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