HARTFORD, Conn. -- The circus is scheduled to arrive at the XL Center on May 4, but with Bruce Pearl back for a one-game respite from his half-the-SEC-season suspension, there was the potential that this afternoon would provide a fair proxy.
But after a 72-61 loss to Connecticut in which his frustrated -- and frustrating -- team was outworked and outplayed, especially after halftime, Pearl's personal plight was reduced to second stage as both he and his players attempted to explain their maddening inconsistency.
"It's just a lack of focus," said senior point guard Melvin Goins, who led the Volunteers with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists. "We'll go out, be real focused, really engaged and take care of what we need to take care of, and we'll look like one of the best teams in the country. Then, at times, we'll lose focus and get lackadaisical, and then one thing leads to another and there's a trickle-down effect and we look like an average team."
Even with wildly bipolar results that include wins over Pitt and Villanova and losses to Oakland and Charlotte, Tennessee's problems aren't just from game to game. The Vols seem to drift in and out of stretches, even from possession to possession some nights. On Saturday, as UConn surged in a sparkling second half, both the Vols' response and body language were lacking.
After the loss, Pearl took a long time in the locker room. "Yeah, he was pretty upset," said freshman forward Tobias Harris. When Pearl finally did make it to the podium, his comments also suggested he's reaching a breaking point. More than once, Pearl noted that Harris needed to see more of the ball, and he was unusually direct in critiquing one of his upperclassmen leaders.
"We're inconsistent because our best player, Scotty Hopson, is inconsistent," Pearl said when asked to explain both his team variance and this game's tale of two halves. "Not in his effort, not in his attitude, not in his ability, just ... UConn's not gonna beat some of the better teams on their schedule on the road if Kemba Walker doesn't have a big game."
The obvious follow-up is how much is Pearl to blame for this? Beyond any coach ultimately being responsible for his team's play, talk of his SEC suspension and the NCAA's looming determination on his and the program's future have been relentless. While Goins and Harris both took repeated pains to play down the impact that Pearl's suspension has had with the team, the loss of the coach on game day has been felt.
"It's been tough. You get used to doing things a certain way and it's gone all of a sudden," Goins said of Pearl being able to run practices but being banished for game days. "I think we've battled through that and we showed that we can play ballgames without him and come through tough and things are normal; [but] it was good to have him back today."
After the game, Harris said the Vols wanted to win the game for Pearl, both as a show of solidarity and for the impact another win over a top-10 team would have had on their collective psyche. UConn would have been Tennessee's sixth such victory in the last 12½ months, but the Huskies deserve credit for delivering what Jim Calhoun said was "far and away the [Huskies'] best team effort against a quality opponent." Walker didn't shoot well early but was a very effective facilitator, chipping in seven assists along with his 16 points, making him one of four Huskies in double figures.
As the season moves on, these teams seem headed in different directions. A UConn team loaded with underclassmen is maturing and their performances are reaching higher levels of both quality and consistency. As for Tennessee? We're 19 games and seven losses into the season and still no one seems to have any idea which Vols team will show up on any given night. "That's a good question," Harris said when asked one final time about the lack of consistency. "I think, as a team, we really need to look into ourselves and ask why we're still struggling. Once we figure out the answer to that, we'll be a great team."
Today, the Vols ran into a team that may be on its way there. On Wednesday, they head back into SEC play. Maybe still without answers. Definitely without their coach.