Nichols: Tennessee baseball and basketball show Disney-sized differences with swagger and pressure response

With the way they’re trending, these two programs seem to be “going their own ways” for a phenomenon that’s all too familiar to Vol fans.
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The dictionary definition of swagger is as follows: “a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive gait or manner.”

If you’ve watched Disney’s High School Musical, you know Sharpay Evans carried that trait in spades. So, too, did Troy Bolton — at times.

Their difference? Evans’s swagger was constant, regardless of circumstance. Even in conflict, the brash blonde made her points known with flare and fireworks. Her attitude and effort to maintain such superiority could stretch from Albuquerque to Broadway, even with theatre doors locked because of COVID-19.

Bolton, meanwhile, crumbled when faced with any existential crisis. Yes, he resolved such conflicts each time to make for a happy ending (it is Disney, after all). Still, whether bricking shots outside his house, desecrating a perfectly good country club fairway, or stumbling dangerously through the moonlit hallways of East High, Bolton reeled when faced with adversity.

No matter the moment, Evans had swagger. Bolton did not.

The same comparison can be made between Tennessee baseball and Tennessee basketball. 

Tony Vitello’s 16th-ranked team is oozing confidence. At one point, Rick Barnes’s 25th-ranked team exuded a similar self-assurance. Now, when faced with adversity, the basketball players’ scent seems to have faded into smelly disappointment.

So, let’s start with baseball. Right now, the Diamond Vols are riding a 5-0 start into this weekend’s four-game series against Indiana State. The Vols swept Georgia Southern in their opening series last weekend before blasting Arkansas-Pine Bluff into smithereens for two straight days at home this week. The combined score of those season-opening games at Lindsey Nelson Stadium was a whopping 35-7, which sounds more like a total that Josh Heupel dreams about for football.

In short, Vitello’s baseball team is dripping with such swagger that a Sharpay Evans comparison may not even suffice. Rather, Tennessee baseball might be more in line with pre-loss Conor McGregor, at least in the case of Drew Gilbert. But let’s stick with Evans to keep from getting too confusing.

At Georgia Southern on Sunday, the 5-foot-9 Gilbert smacked two pivotal home runs. He even stopped to watch after each one and added a bat flip after the post-hit posing. Heckling from the Eagles’ fans made matters even worse, as Gilbert rounded the bases by delivering the opposite of what anyone would expect from a small Minnesota native: trash talk.

“(Drew’s) the guy that, you never think he’s scared, you never think he's nervous, and he uses those emotions to his benefit,” said teammate Evan Russell. “He’s a guy that, you know, he’s gonna play with fire, and his emotions, it almost helps him in a way. He’s not afraid of anybody. It doesn't matter who's on the mound. He's not afraid of the big scene, and he's gonna step up to the plate and give it his all, and you're gonna hear about it.”

The Southpaw’s chirping was enough to clear both benches on Sunday, and it could put Gilbert on the receiving end of a head-hunting fastball if continued for much longer. But the same mindset is part of why Tennessee is playing this well this early, and it could also be a factor in why Gilbert showed his versatility by beaming heaters from the mound on Wednesday. 

The sophomore got the win in Game Two against Pine Bluff, as he tossed two shutout innings in relief to close a game that Tennessee started with a record-setting eight runs in the first inning. Those runs eclipsed the previous high in the Tony Vitello era, a seven-run first inning in a March 2018 win over James Madison.

Mind you, this was after the Vols opened Lindsey Nelson Stadium with Tuesday’s 21-1 thrashing, courtesy of 16 hits and a solid return for left-hander Will Heflin since his ACL tear last fall. Tuesday’s win also featured a mind-boggling 11 runs in the eighth inning alone for Tennessee. So, when the Vols scored eight first-inning runs during Russell’s return to the lineup on Wednesday, they were just picking up where they left off the night before.

That hot start isn’t a newfound trend, either.

According to Tennessee Stats & Info, Vitello’s club is 25-0 in the month of February dating back to the beginning of the 2019 season. During that span, the Vols have outscored opponents 226-40. 

In short, Tennessee hasn’t just “talked the talk.” It’s also “walked the walk,” much like Sharpay Evans when she struts down a hallway.

As one can tell from the reactions in that link, UT’s record is almost as staggering as Evans’ dramatic entrance.

But, if you’ve been watching the Vols on the hardwood, you know they currently have about as much swagger as a clammy Troy Bolton when he gets pelted by basketballs in a vision of his own angst.

Sure, Victor Bailey, Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and Yves Pons showed some confidence on Wednesday night against Vanderbilt. 

Bailey paced Tennessee with 21 points on Wednesday, with 15 coming beyond the arc. His night in Nashville marked the redshirt junior’s third-straight game as UT’s leading scorer, and, without him, the Vols wouldn’t have lasted against the Commodores.

Jaden Springer returned to life with 20 points, Yves Pons netted a double-double with 10 points and as many rebounds, and Keon Johnson added six points with two coming off a ferocious two-handed slam.

Johnson’s dunk certainly had some swagger, as did Bailey’s three-point barrage and a block from Pons that could have traveled into downtown Nashville if not for the Memorial Gym roof. 

A win is a win is a win.

But, throughout the game, something still appeared amiss about Rick Barnes’s team. 17 turnovers certainly looked odd, as did the scoreboard when Vanderbilt used several 3-pointers to claw within single digits, despite missing three starters for the teams’ 201st meeting.  

Granted, the announcement about Scottie Pippen Jr., Dylan Disu and Clevon Brown came shortly before tip-off, so Tennessee had to adjust quickly for a different lineup. But the Vols had more than enough chances to pull away from their in-state opponent. Instead, a late flurry from Johnson and Springer buried Vanderbilt, barely saving Tennessee from its own embarrassment.

“I think you have to give Jerry Stackhouse a great deal of credit,” Barnes said. “They do so many things well offensively. They spread us out and they made some threes— some tough ones. We turned the ball over way too much, especially early. We have to stop turning the ball over.

“It was a good thing they probably didn’t have those two guys the way we were turning the ball over. Again, my hat goes off to them, because their players really fought hard. Our guys did, but we can’t continue to turn the ball over at that kind of rate.”

To that end, the win wasn’t as much a victory for UT as it was a sigh of relief. The Vols’ offense still appears to have no permanent answer, as we don’t know how long Bailey’s hot streak will last. Moreover, John Fulkerson is still very much in a funk, while Josiah-Jordan James is still easing back into his versatile role after spraining his wrist against LSU.

The Vols still don’t have that “alpha dog,” either. No one wants the ball in crunch time, and, even worse, each player can’t seem to shove the ball away fast enough, even when wide-open under the basket.

Selfish basketball is bad. Unselfish basketball is even worse, at least when it involves almost 20 turnovers, bad shot selection and older players who all but refuse to take control.

Such is the case for a UT hoops squad that has buckled violently in response to the immense expectations thrust upon it. 

So, yes, Tennessee basketball is very much like Troy Bolton. 

Bolton’s identity crisis ripped away his swagger, as he came to a crossroads between musical theater and basketball. If he chose just one, he would have to risk unfulfilled potential in the other. 

The same crisis and subsequent choice can be applied to Tennessee. Rick Barnes’s Vols can choose to live up to their sky-high potential, or they can continue to face-plant their way to a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.

Of course, Bolton ultimately chose both options. The Vols must choose one.

With Auburn on the horizon Saturday, Florida coming to Knoxville on March 7, and a grueling SEC Tournament slate ahead, UT certainly appears to be trending downward. 

But, if Tennessee basketball rights itself, it would give UT fans with a pleasant surprise. 

Still, with Vitello’s baseball team doing well, Vols fans might not expect an upswing in men’s basketball. Kellie Harper’s team is certainly performing up to par, as are women’s soccer and UT softball. But, for men’s athletics, simultaneous success across multiple sports hasn’t existed this year.

There’s no rhyme or reason, either. If the Diamond Vols plummet, the Basket Vols will soar, and vice versa. 

Based on everything this week, UT fans should start paying attention to baseball if they haven’t already. Because this basketball team is more contradictory than Bolton’s sidekick, Chad Danforth, when he danced on a baseball field while singing a song about how he doesn’t dance.

As far as “The Big Dance,” we know the Basketball Vols will get into the tournament. If things go right, they could even come alive and make some magic. 

But, if recent patterns hold true, Tennessee’s 2021 season will end in the same description as a Troy Bolton-Sharpay Evans singing duo: short-lived, confusing and far less than the sum of its parts.