Tennessee fought. It battled and scrapped.
In the end, though, it was not the Vols' toughness that was in question. It was their talent at point guard and technical execution that befell a group that is looking for a signature moment in the make-or-break third season of coach Cuonzo Martin.
Yes, the December win over Virginia was a highlight moment that has become a sizable win because of Virginia's success since. The win over Virginia is a fine wine that gets better with age while these Vols are 100 percent Spam -- the exact same with an uncertain mixture of mystery whenever you open the can.
They fight and rebound and you know Jordan McRae will bring energy and most nights score 20. Jarnell Stokes is delivering on his five-star pedigree -- and the extra work in the weight room and the foul line have paid huge dividends -- and is double-double machine. Old Man Maymon is tough and plays extremely hard, even if it is below the rim on surgically repaired legs that remind of his grit and limitations on almost every play.
That's the good. And at times the Vols' good can be great. Ask Virginia. Or LSU.
But the rest, well, that's a hodgepodge that is as consistent and dependable as local weather forecasts. The prolonged absence of Robert Hubbs to injury and the enigmatic absences of Antonio Barton to streakiness and Darius Thompson to youth have besieged a backcourt that is starved for a point guard. How starved you ask? Well, the Vols Spam table-setting would go from Hardee's to Hennon's with a a steady diet of point guard consistency.
So it goes, and so it went as the Vols battled a Florida team that is experienced and tough and defensively superb. To be fair, the Tuesday night defeat was every bit as much about Florida's strengths as UT's shortcomings in the Gators' 67-58 win.
But as we have said frequently this UT basketball season, these Vols collectively are not as good as they should be considering the skills they have individually. Take the two best SEC teams -- Florida and Kentucky -- and put them aside, and Tennessee likely has two of the top three players in the league with McRae and Stokes. Heck, those two Vols likely start for any club in the SEC, and how many other players in the conference would crack the rotations in Gainesville or Lexington?
The sums of these Vols is not as good as the parts and that has a lot to do with the deficiencies at point guard. It also has a lot to do with coaching. When was the last time UT got an easy basket because of a called play or an in-bounds set? The margin for these Vols offensively is simultaneously enormous and miniscule. Because they pound the offensive glass, UT gets more looks, which creates a wide margin of opportunity. But because of their stagnation, the Vols have to work harder than most everyone else to get good looks.
It's confounding and potentially hazardous for Martin's job security. Another tournament-less March would be difficult to stomach, especially when these Vols -- with seniors McRae and Maymon and potential NBA draft entry Stokes likely moving on -- are much better than next season's bunch will be.
So it goes and here we are. UT is talented enough to play in and win during the NCAA tournament. Ask Virginia or Xavier. They have the pieces now, but the question looms if they have the point guard and the coach to get them there.
Contact Jay Greeson at 423-757-6273 and at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @jgreesontfp and listen to Jay and Times Free Press sports writer David Paschall on Press Row from 3-6 p.m. every Monday-Friday on ESPN 105.1 FM and at timesfreepress.com
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...