published Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Belmont a tough test for Vols


by Wes Rucker

KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee men’s basketball team is doing several things better than it’s typically done.

The 19th-ranked Volunteers are generally defending and rebounding at a high level. They’re generally making free throws much better than they have in the past. Their post defense has generally been stout.

But the Vols (7-3) head into tonight’s rare, non-conference rematch with Belmont (9-2) on a three-game losing streak because of things they’re not doing well.

They’re not taking care of the ball.

UT, through 10 games, has 135 assists and 154 turnovers. That’s extremely rare for a team coached by Bruce Pearl.

“Our assist-to-turnover ratio is not anything [near] where it’s traditionally always been. Not even close,” Pearl said. “I would think that’s an issue.”

The Vols have 29 turnovers to just 19 assists in their past two games — Friday’s loss at Charlotte, and Tuesday’s home loss to Southern California.

UT had 18 assists to just 11 turnovers in its 65-64 loss to former Vols’ coach Kevin O’Neill’s Trojans.

“We had a lot of turnovers, a lot of them unforced,” Pearl said after Wednesday’s practice.

And here’s where it gets even uneasier. The Vols had 27 turnovers when they hung on to beat Belmont on Nov. 16, and they haven’t had more than 20 against anyone else. The only other time they reached 20 was their Dec. 11 win at then-No. 3 Pittsburgh.

“It’s a little strange to play [Belmont] again,” Pearl said. “It’s not my favorite opponent, because they’re so well-coached, and they play so hard. They’re a dangerous team. They’ve only lost two games — at Tennessee and at Vanderbilt — and they shoot the 3 ball.

“They make almost 10 3s a game. That’s a dangerous club.”

And the Vols are already in a dangerous spot, with their first three-game losing skid since 2007.

“Focus. Focus. We need to focus in on the things that we want to get done,” UT senior point guard Melvin Goins said. “We need to recognize what we’re trying to do, and go out there and execute it. Turnovers is lack of focus and just toughness. When you teams that like to pack it in, you’ve got to take every possession for what it is.

“You have to play through every possession and just take advantage of every opportunity that the defense gives you, and you can’t give them easy ways to get on the offensive end.”

Quite simply, junior guard Cameron Tatum said the Vols are “not valuing the basketball.”

“We shouldn’t be turning it over to teams that don’t even force turnovers,” Tatum said. “We’ve got to do a better job of valuing the possession, and just valuing the game itself. You’ve got to value this game. That’s what it’s about. That’s what it takes to win, valuing every possession, valuing the game. There’s just a lot of things we’ve got to work on.”

Goins said he doesn’t know where the Vols are, either, or where they’re going to go from here.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really know right now,” Goins said. “I think everybody wants to win. I think everybody wants to do the right things. But we’ve got to put it all together when the lights come on. We haven’t been doing that lately.

“We won’t see until [tonight] how we respond.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@timesfreepress.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat

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