KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl wants his players to stop thinking so much about winning or losing.
The Volunteers have lost consecutive games to mid-major opponents – Oakland and Charlotte – for the first time in Pearl’s six seasons, erasing momentum from a big win at Pittsburgh on Dec. 11.
The back-to-back losses dropped Tennessee (7-2) from seventh to No. 19 in The Associated Press Top 25. The Vols host Southern California on Tuesday, and another loss would mark their first three-game losing skid under Pearl.
“We don’t like to lose too many in a row here,” Pearl said Monday. “We’ve got to focus more on the process than the end result in the sense of what do we have to do better to fix this offensively, what do we do better to rebound defensively, how can we play better together, how can we make each other better. The outcome will take care of itself.”
Pearl has five games left to straighten out his team’s game demeanor before he begins serving an eight-game Southeastern Conference suspension enacted by conference commissioner Mike Slive as punishment for Pearl’s pending NCAA recruiting violations. Pearl will be allowed to coach his players on days in between games but can’t attend the games.
Senior point guard Melvin Goins thinks better focus on the floor will help prevent the offensive struggles that started in the second half against Oakland and continued against Charlotte.
“I just think we need to execute more,” Goins said. “I don’t think we were running our stuff at all, our spacing was messed up and we never got into a flow offensively. I just think we need to focus on executing and running our plays and not let the defense dictate what we do.”
Oakland used its size to keep Tennessee away from the basket, and the Vols shot 34.4 percent in the second half. Charlotte’s zone defense kept the Vols shooting from the perimeter, where they’ve made just 2 of 27 attempts from 3-point range in the last game and a half.
It’s not because they’re not getting good looks either, Pearl said.
“It’s psychological as much as anything. Our good shooters are getting good looks,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been that patient in the last couple of games. I think sometimes turning a good shot down to get the team a better shot would be a good formula.”
Pearl knows USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who coached Tennessee from 1994-97, will use man-to-man defense to keep the Vols away from the basket.
“Until we’re able to knock some down and have it be a situation where we make them pay for leaving open our guys on the perimeter, we’re going to see more of these kinds of defenses,” he said.
The Trojans (6-5) have lost six straight road games dating back to last season and most recently lost at No. 3 Kansas by two points on Saturday. They beat then-No. 19 Texas 73-56 on Dec. 5 at the Galen Center in Los Angeles.
USC also got the better of the Vols a season ago in a 77-55 win on Dec. 19, 2009, Pearl’s worst loss at Tennessee until a 74-45 loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament on March 13.
“We just have to put offense and defense on the same page and when we do, you can see that we beat the best teams in the country,” senior center Brian Williams said. “We’re just working as a unit to be on the same page. I don’t think anybody’s panicked. Of course we’re frustrated that we lost two games, but we’re ready to play the next one.”
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