The setback was the worst of the Bruce Pearl era and might prove to be the last of the Bruce Pearl era. Athletics director Mike Hamilton suggested two days before the tourney that his head coach is no lock to return next season.
Asked what Pearl said about the future in the post-game locker room, senior point guard Melvin Goins replied: "He doesn't know the future, so he didn't really speak too much about that."
How much of the 30-point margin can be blamed on Hamilton's ill-timed comments is sure to be the subject of considerable debate in the days ahead.
"I don't think it had anything to do with us on the court," Goins said. "Of course, it was a distraction off the court. But, as players, we have to step up and take the responsibility on the court, and we didn't come to play today."
Actually, the Vols came to play for 13 minutes. Freshman Tobias Harris scored 15 of Tennessee's first 20 points, and the Big Orange led 23-17 with 7:14 left to the break. Michigan closed the half on a 16-6 run, however, that gave the Wolverines a 33-29 intermission lead. As the Big Ten team opened the second half with a 19-2 explosion that widened the gap to 52-31, the Big Orange appeared to fold.
"We just didn't play with no heart out there," said Harris, who led all scorers with 19 points. "Michigan came out and made shots, and we just did a terrible job of trying to cover them. On the offensive end, we rushed too many shots and basically just quit."
Harris hit 6 of 6 field goals and 7 of 7 foul shots in scoring all 19 of his points before intermission. He was 0 for 5 from the field and 0 for 1 from the line in the second half.
"The first half I was getting the ball in my positions and making plays from there," Harris said. "The second half they started to double down in the post. I tried to do what I could from there, kick out and get other guys shots, but it was more about them on the offensive end - making plays and really breaking us down. That caused us to force shots on our offensive end and create turnovers. We just didn't do a good job of that."
Even with Michigan playing mostly zone defense, Tennessee committed 18 turnovers. And, even with just one starter taller than 6-5, the Wolverines dominated the towering Vols 36-26 on the backboards. The Big Orange sealed its doom by shooting a frigid 34.9 percent from the field and allowing Michigan to shoot 64.3 percent (18 of 28) after intermission.
The Wolverines dissected Tennessee's defense with surgical precision in the the second half. Zack Novak hit 5 of 10 shots (4 of 6 from 3) and led the winners in both points (14) and rebounds (10). Matt Vogrich came off the bench to hit 5 of 5 shots en route to 11 points. Stu Douglass hit 5 of 7 and scored 11 points, while Jordan Morgan made 5 of 6 and contributed 10 points. Darius Morris sank just 4 of 12 tries en route to 8 points but dished out 9 assists, just one less than Tennessee produced as a team.
Harris was the whole show for Tennessee. First-team All-SEC pick Scotty Hopson made just 1 of 5 shots and finished with 4 points. Cameron Tatum's struggles continued as he made just 2 of 9 shots. Goins was 0 of 3 from the field with more turnovers (3) than assists (2).
Afterward, struggling to put the setback into words, Goins said "It's just an empty feeling right now."
Speaking on his post-game show, Pearl noted that the life seemed to go out of his team mere minutes into the second half.
"Michigan scored on three of their first four possessions, and it was like the game was over," the coach said. "We just shut down."
The key was John Beilein's halftime switch to a zone defense.
"Tobias had a great first half; they couldn't stop him," Pearl said. "They wound up going zone because they couldn't stop him man to man and we were doing a great job of getting him the ball."
After watching Harris score 19 points in the first half, Vol teammates continued watching him in the second half.
"When they (Wolverines) go zone, other guys have got to get involved," Pearl said. "Other guys have got to step up. Other guys have got to make shots. Unfortunately, we just had so many no-show games. Brian Williams (6-10 Vol center) doesn't get a rebound in 16 minutes. How do you explain that? Melvin doesn't make a basket. I love Mel but he was off his game a little bit.
"You could see Cam all year long struggling down the stretch ... then Scotty Hopson gets one basket. You can't win at tournament time with one guy stepping up and everybody else fading away."
Eighth-seeded Michigan, now 21-13, advances to Sunday's West Region quarterfinals.
Closing at 19-15, the ninth-seeded Vols are only the second team to fall short of 20 wins in Pearl's 19-year coaching career. The other was his 2001-02 Wisconsin-Milwaukee club that went 16-13.
"We just did not come together as a team as well as you need to," Pearl said of the 2011 Vols. "My job is to make them better; I didn't make them better enough. Their job, though, is to make each other better, and that was our greatest failing.
"Nobody made anybody else better out there, offensively or defensively."