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Tennessee’s late game execution is what has cost them wins, not just Melvin Goins

Feb 14, 2011, 4:48 PM EDT

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On Saturday, Tennessee fell to 5-5 in the SEC with a 61-60 loss to Florida, putting them three games off of the Gator’s pace with just six left to play.

Bruce Pearl has his theories as to why the teams is struggling — point guard play:

“We have to have better point guard play, so there could be some changes,” Pearl said. “Right now, it’s Melvin Goins and Trae Golden. It could have to be Skylar McBee or Josh Bone. That could be in the cards against South Carolina.”

Agree or disagree, he has a point. Goins has handed out just two assists in the past three games.

But that may not be the Vols’ biggest problem this season. Tennessee has lost their last three games, but pinning fault on Goins, who was never a great playmaker to begin with, isn’t necessarily right. (Although, after a last second loss to Florida, Pearl said that Goins didn’t run the play he called on the final possession, which is a bigger issue.)

Looking at Tennessee’s schedule, they have not been blown out all that often. In fact, there have been eight games in which Tennessee had the ball on their final possession with either a chance to tie or a chance to win the game. They’ve only won two — against Belmont and at Georgia, on a bucket that looked like an obvious over-the-back on Brian Williams.

I went back and watched the tape of all eight of Tennessee’s game-deciding possessions:

  • 12/17 – Charlotte 49, Tennessee 48: Charlotte scores with 7.4 seconds left in the game to go up one. Tennessee inbounds the ball and pushes the other way, but Cameron Tatum gets stopped just across half court. Pearl uses a timeout with 3.3 seconds left. The play they run on the inbounds is Tatum hits Williams a good 30 feet from the basket. He then runs off Williams, who hands the ball to Tatum for a 35 footer at the buzzer and hits nothing but back board.
  • 12/21 – USC 65, Tennessee 64: Maurice Jones misses a tough runner with 12 seconds left on the clock. Pearl doesn’t want to use a timeout, so Melvin Goins pushes the other way. He gives it back to Cam Tatum who is trapped and forced to call a timeout just over half court with 3.5 seconds left. The play that is called is for Tobias Harris, who sets a flare screen and cuts to the top of the key. The defender doesn’t bite, which forces Harris to catch the ball 40 feet from the basket. He takes to hard, right-handed dribbles and misses a pull-up three from 25 feet on the right wing off the back iron.
  • 12/23 – Tennessee 66, Belmont 65: Scotty Hopson gets isolated on the right wing 25 feet from the rim. He catches and immediately drives right. He beats his man with two dribbles and gets all the way to the rim for a finger roll with 5.7 seconds left. Tennessee gets a stop and holds on for the win.
  • 1/8 – Arkansas 68, Tennessee 65: The Vols get the ball after a missed free throw with 19 seconds left. Tony Jones (Bruce Pearl is suspended at this point) has no timeouts left, so Melvin Goins brings the ball up. He dribbles the clock out, trying to penetrate, before hitting John Fields in the paint. Fields nearly loses the ball before kicking it back out to Goins. Goins is swarmed, and as the clock is running out he hits Tobias Harris in the corner, who is wide open. But there isn’t much time left as Harris rushes a three (its questionable whether he even got it off in time) and sends an airball long.
  • 1/13 – Florida 81, Tennessee 75 OT: At the end of regulation, Tennessee has the ball with timeouts available and six more seconds on the game clock than the shot clock. Goins dribbles out the clock before hitting Hopson on the left wing. Hopson immediately has two defenders run at him, so he dumps the ball down to Brian Williams on the left block. Williams fades and shoots a baby hook, but he leaves enough space for Alex Tyus to block the shot. Florida gains control, and calls a timeout for a chance to win. Obviously, the game ended up going to overtime.
  • 1/18 – Tennessee 59, Georgia 57: Tennessee has the ball on the final possession. Hopson is isolated on the left wing. He drives middle, draws a defender, and kicks the ball out to Goins. Goins then drives middle, but has no space. Harris manages to free himself in the corner. He airballs a three, but Williams grabs the offensive rebound and puts the ball back in. Williams looks like he goes over the Georgia defenders back, but no call is made. Tennessee wins at the buzzer.
  • 2/5 – Alabama 65, Tennessee 60 OT: At the end of regulation, after forcing a turnover, Tennessee calls a timeout just over half court. The ball they design is a isolation for Harris of the left block. Skylar McBee throws the entry pass. Harris is immediately double teamed. He kicks the ball out to McBee who swings it to Goins at the top of the key. Goins takes a 23 foot, contested three off the catch, but misses. Williams misses a tip-in, and the Vols lost in overtime.
  • 2/12 – Florida 61, Tennessee 60: After Erving Walker drives and finishes a tough, left-handed layup over the Vol defense with 17 seconds left, Bruce Pearl opts against using a timeout. Instead, he calls for a high screen and roll between Goins and Harris. Goins comes off the screen, but there is no space. So he steps back and takes a contested three. He misses as time expires, and the Vols once again lost a winnable game late.

You can blame Goins if you would like, but in eight situations where Tennessee had a chance to win a game or force overtime on their final possession, they managed to get one good shot — maybe two, if you think Harris shooting a three from the corner a good shot.

Granted, some of that has to fall onto Goins’ shoulders. He’s the point guard, he’s the playmaker, and he had the ball in his hands in a number of those late game situations. But some of it falls on Pearl’s and Jones’ shoulders as well. Part of the lack of late game execution is a lack of late game coaching and poor play design.

Regardless of what you believe or who you want to blame, Tennessee’s inability to execute late in games is what has cost them this season. They could easily be 8-2 or 9-1 in the SEC right now, with two wins over the Florida Gators.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.