Granted, that was an exhibition game against a Div. II opponent. Still, you got the idea this would be a Tennessee squad whose youthful enthusiasm and energy would enable it to start fast on a regular basis.
That was the case in the regular-season opener, when UT raced to a 24-10 lead against Chattanooga. It was the case again in Game 2, when the Vols jumped on UT-Martin 27-6 in the opening minutes. The Big Orange also bolted to a commanding first-half lead (35-15) in Game 4 vs. Siena.
A team that routinely exploded out of the gate in November somehow finds itself stumbling out of the gate in recent weeks, however.
The Vols trailed Georgetown 14-6 in Game 5, trailed Gonzaga 18-13 in Game 6, trailed Temple 13-2 in Game 8, trailed Marquette 15-8 in Game 9, trailed Belmont 14-11 in Game 10 and trailed Kansas 25-9 in Game 12. The sloppy starts resulted in losses vs. Gonzaga (83-74), Temple (88-72) and Kansas (92-85).
Given the overall youth and inexperience of this Big Orange team, a few early-game jitters are to be expected on occasion. If the 9-3 Vols are to maintain their No. 15 national ranking, however, they need to be more competitive and efficient in the opening minutes.
Head coach Bruce Pearl has noticed UT's propensity for slow starts. Naturally, he finds the trend troubling.
“Particularly the starts we've gotten off to in a number of our key games against some of our toughest opponents,” he said. “We didn't start well against Georgetown or Gonzaga, Marquette, Temple and now Kansas.”
Although he noted that the Vols “battled back against a few of those opponents,” Pearl conceded that slow starts could be devastating now that the SEC portion of the schedule is fast approaching.
“Obviously, that's something that we have to address,” the head man said.
Step 1 in fixing the problem might be to make sure the right people are taking the right shots at the start of games. The right people would be All-American Tyler Smith and red-hot Wayne Chism. Smith is averaging 17 points per game. Chism is on a roll, having scored 26 points in Game 9 vs. Marquette, 18 in Game 11 vs. Louisiana and 17 in Game 12 vs. Kansas.
Pearl conceded that part of the problem is “knowing our roles and making sure our best players get the early touches,” adding: “I think these are things that happen with a basketball team that is trying to find its identity, both on the offensive and defensive ends.”