Vols have regrouped, salvaged season
Happy New Year, Bruce!
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl had just finished celebrating ringing in the beginning of 2010 with an emotional road win against in-state rival Memphis and was breaking down film when he got the phone call around noon on New Year’s Day.
Four of his players had been stopped for speeding near the Knoxville campus and were arrested after a pair of handguns, a bag of marijuana and an open container of alcohol were found in the car.
Pearl immediately suspended all four: Starting forward Tyler Smith, part-time starter Cameron Tatum and reserves Brian Williams and Melvin Goins.
"On January 2, I didn’t know what we had,” Pearl said. "I was dealing with four really good kids that made a bad decision.”
That choice cost Smith, the team’s best player, the rest of his college career. He was booted off the team a week after pleading guilty to possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm with an altered serial number and is now playing overseas in Turkey.
Tatum and Goins were suspended four games and didn’t play a single minute in their first game after being reinstated – and Williams was suspended for nine games before being brought back.
"For two months, I didn’t think I had a future in basketball,” Williams said. "Most people don’t get a second opportunity and even if they get it, they don’t take advantage of it.”
Williams and his teammates are clearly taking advantage as they have helped lead a more balanced Vols team to the Sweet 16.
Williams would watch the games alone in his apartment. That was also the case for Goins and Tatum – who sat in their rooms by themselves and cheered their teammates on to a huge upset against No. 1 Kansas.
"I wanted to be in a private environment and be able to let out my emotions while I was watching,” Goins said.
"It was bittersweet,” Tatum admitted. "But I lost my voice. My neighbors came out and told me to shut up I was yelling so loud.”
Williams didn’t see those who lived next to him all that much. He didn’t want to go out because he said he felt like an outcast and when he did go out, was the victim of racial remarks.
"Some of them were killing me and giving me a hard time,” Williams said. "But the majority of the fans were great.”
"I was embarrassed, but I was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Tatum added. "Not that I was guilty, but my name was tainted.”
Williams has regained his spot in the starting lineup and is averaging 10 rebounds a game in the two NCAA tournament wins against San Diego State and Ohio University. Tatum and Goins are both key reserves – Tatum had nine points in 21 minutes against Ohio and Goins went for 15 points in the win over the Aztecs – for a coach that believes in playing 10 guys all the time.
Somehow, even with Smith gone, this Vols team has come together.
"I think this has made us hungrier,” Williams said. "We’ve been doubted since everything happened. We were ranked 15th in the country and somehow they only gave us a No. 6 seed. We had two wins against the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country. It’s us vs. the world.”
"We’re better because of how close this situation made us,” Tatum added. "We’ve always had the talent, but this whole thing made us closer as a team – both on and off the court.”
No one would have thought it possible back on Jan. 2. when the Vols, who had already lost Emmanuel Negedu (heart condition) and Josh Tabb (transfer), watched four more guys leave the active roster.
However, Tennessee knocked off Kansas with just six scholarship guys. The Vols also beat high-powered Kentucky in Knoxville.
Now the Vols will face Ohio State on Friday with an Elite Eight berth on the line.
"This team is one win away from going further than any team in Tennessee history,” Pearl said.
No one would have believed it back on New Year’s Day.