Pearl needs Volunteers at point

Bruce Pearl emerged from his team’s locker room, shrugged his shoulders and took a deep, long breath.

This wasn’t what the Tennessee coach had in mind when he decided to bring his team out to Southern California for its first true road game of the season.

“We are very disappointed,” he said after a stunning 77-55 upset loss to supposed Pac-10 also-ran USC Saturday at a near-empty Galen Center.

“We just didn’t have a game.”

Or apparently an offense.

That’s ultimately what proved to be the dagger for Pearl’s players, who shot a meager 34.5 percent from the field thanks to an even more dreadful 2-for-22 effort from beyond the arc.

“We weren’t efficient on offense, we weren’t patient enough and we didn’t do the things necessary to put the ball in the basket,” said leading scorer Scott Hopson, who finished with a team-high 16 points and was the one bright spot from the perimeter (7-for-14 shooting) for No. 9 Tennessee.

“We just couldn’t score,” Pearl added.

But the truth is, the Volunteers won’t become an elite team — one that Pearl and many others think Tennessee can become this season — until they eventually solve their long-standing issues at point guard.

“Point guard play has been a challenge for us,” Pearl admitted.

Ever since Pearl arrived in Knoxville, it’s been the big question mark hanging over his team’s head.

“Sometimes it’s offensively, sometimes it’s defensively,” he continued.

On Saturday, it was a bit of both for Tennessee’s two floor generals.

Senior Bobby Maze, for one, struggled to keep Charlotte transfer Mike Gerrity in front of him, allowing the 6-foot-1 senior to penetrate and break down Tennessee’s defense in the USC point guard’s first game in more than 21 months.

“Bobby has worked on his defense, but he wasn’t able to keep Gerrity out of the lane,” Pearl said.

Neither could JUCO transfer Melvin Goins, who has shown at times this season that he can be an effective offensive player but still doesn’t appear to have the playmaking skills Pearl needs for the Vols to be a consistent top 10 team.

“Melvin can score, but it doesn’t look like he can make plays for others,” his coach said. “It’s really hard to be a point guard and not have the vision to get guys the ball.”

Against the Trojans, Maze and Goins did little to change that perception, combining for 18 points and one of just five Tennessee assists.

“We just gotta check ourselves,” Goins said afterward. “We’re just gonna try to get better everyday.”

The problem is, Pearl’s players don’t have a whole lot of time if they want to be considered an SEC contender and potential Elite Eight team.

The Volunteers, whose only other blemish this season came in a one-point loss to No. 4 Purdue in the Paradise Jam championship game, have some stiff competition ahead.

After a warmup at home against North Carolina AT&T, Pearl’s team will head to Graceland for a New Year’s Eve date with in-state rival Memphis and then 10 days later will welcome No. 1 Kansas to Thompson-Boling Arena.

By that time, conference play will be ready to begin, with Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Florida all making visits to the Volunteer State in the final two weeks of January.

So after Saturday’s sub-par performance in L.A., Pearl knows his point guards have a long way to go if his team is going to contend for a SEC championship this season.

“We’re trying to create our own identity,” explained Maze, who said falling to USC was the toughest loss of his entire college basketball career.

That identity won’t be found, however, until more progress is made in the backcourt.

“There’s definitely some room for improvement, not just at the point guard position but at all positions,” Hopson said. “I think as a team, every position has to get better.”

Still, the Vols will need to figure out how to win games even when their shots aren’t falling from the outside and do a better job of not settling for jumpers when opposing defenses try to pack the paint.

And unless it was forcing the Trojans into sloppy ball-handling or careless passes, Tennessee looked absolutely lost in its half-court offense Saturday.

“I didn’t think we’d beat them like this,” admitted USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who earned the Pac-10 its first top 25 win of the season.

“That’s a great team. We caught them on a night when they didn’t shoot well.”

The Volunteers, though, are going to have their bad shooting nights. It’s just a matter of when.

Yet if questions at point guard continue to mount over the next two months, those excuses won’t fly for a team that has the experience and talent to do big things come March.