DAYTON - When they first took the court yesterday, I thought I had stumbled into an NBA arena by mistake.
The University of Tennessee probably wins half of its games during warm-ups. The other team takes one look at the Volunteers - starting with 6-10, 265-pound Shaquille O'Neal impersonator Charles Hathaway - and calls it quits mentally.
In the flesh, the Volunteers can give you heart failure.
And then the ball goes up and the spotlight shines brightly and Tennessee starts to resemble, oh, McNeese State.
The Volunteers are a cosmetic college basketball team. They look great in airport terminals and lay-up lines. Their individual brilliance takes your breath away.
Don't believe the hype. The Volunteers are just like an imperfect diamond - beautiful to look at but totally without value.
A season that opened with great promise ended with a sickening thud for the Volunteers, 70-63 losers to Charlotte in a first-round NCAA Midwest Regional game at the University of Dayton.
Charlotte faces Illinois in a second-round tournament game tomorrow. Tennessee's players gather up their press clippings and return home.
“This is the most unusual season in my 37 years of coaching,” said Tennessee coach Jerry Green, whose return next year is not assured despite going 22-11. “We played well at times ... but there have been some inconsistencies. We have worked hard to correct the inconsistencies.”
It was a typical Tennessee performance - hot one minute, cold the next. The Volunteers shot 52 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, but they couldn't pull away from the inferior 49ers. Excellent marksmanship was the only thing keeping the Vols in the game.
In the second half, Tennessee shot only 31 percent, connecting on nine of 29 attempts. The Volunteers were 1 of 11 from 3-point range, 1 of 7 from the foul line. During one catatonic stretch, the Vols went five minutes without scoring.
In the final minute of the game, Tennessee senior guard Tony Harris lofted a 3-point airball with the Volunteers trailing 66-63.
The Volunteers believe their basketball ability can pull them out of any predicament.
Individually, the Vols are one of the most talented teams in the country. But they still have not learned how to co-exist for the good of the team. For their own good, actually.
“Their players played exceptionally well today,” said junior forward Vincent Yarborough, who led Tennessee with 12 points and 10 rebounds. “We came out a bit lackluster, and it cost us the ballgame.”
Green's biggest weakness as Tennessee's coach has been his inability to lengthen the attention span of his players.
Many of the Volunteers carry impeccable credentials. Harris and Yarborough played in the prestigious McDonald's High School All-America Game. This year, Yarborough and sophomore forward Ron Slay were named to the All-Southeastern Conference team.
Seniors Harris, Hathaway and Isiah Victor form one of the most successful classes at Tennessee. They accounted for 89 wins, leading the Volunteers to four consecutive 20-win seasons and four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
In their final college game, Harris, Hathaway and Victor combined for 17 points.
What a way to go out with a bang, eh?
John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com.