By Steve Williams
Today, February 25th, is the 5-year anniversary of the University of Tennessee being ranked No. 1 in the nation in men’s basketball. What a day that was! The Vols were on top of the college basketball world, above the Dukes and North Carolinas and UCLAs and Indianas and all of the grand game’s royalty.
For old times’ sake, how about a “Brrruuuuuuuuuccce!”
Okay, okay. That sounded good. But let’s don’t get carried away.
We have a new coach now, and Cuonzo is doing a pretty good job. Beating the Big Blue by 30 would attest to that.
But today is a good time to reflect on former coach Bruce Pearl’s amazing run at Tennessee. It’s really too bad it had to end the way it did, with him being sentenced to a three-year show cause for lying to the NCAA. If he had been up front and come clean about that rule-breaking cookout at his home in the summer of 2008, Pearl probably would have just been slapped with a secondary violation and still be the Vols’ coach.
Months prior to committing his unpardonable mistake, Pearl’s 2007-08 team accomplished something no other UT ever had with the No. 1 ranking. Both the Associated Press sportswriters poll and ESPN/USA Today coaches poll ranked the UT men No. 1 in the nation after that 66-62 hard-fought win over then No. 1 Memphis on Saturday night, Feb. 23, 2008, on the Tigers’ home floor. The Vols came into that showdown 24-2 and ranked No. 2.
“There’ll always be a lot of talk of where were you when they beat beat Memphis to become No. 1?” Pearl said when news of the No. 1 ranking was posted on line that following Monday.
Bruce was right. I still remember that day and sending my daughter, who lives in London, England, a text message about it.
As often happens to top-ranked teams in college basketball, the Vols didn’t get to enjoy their No. 1 status very long as they lost to a very good Vanderbilt team in their next outing on Tuesday night in Nashville. When the new poll came out the next week, the Vols were ranked No. 4.
The 2007-08 season was Pearl’s third at UT. That team had another big night on March 5 that year, beating Florida 89-86 in Gainesville to clinch Tennessee’s first outright Southeastern Conference championship in 41 years.
Those Vols went on to set a school record for wins (31-5) and posted a 14-2 conference mark in claiming its ninth SEC title.
Chris Lofton, the SEC’s greatest 3-point shooter who former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith passed on before he was snatched up by UT’s Buzz Peterson, was named a second-team All-America as a senior that year and was joined on the first-team All-SEC squad by 6-7 sophomore Tyler Smith.
Senior sidekick JaJuan Smith, who was not as decorated as Lofton but regarded as one of Tennessee’s best all-around guards of all time, also was in the starting five, along with 6-9 sophomore Wayne Chism and sophomore point guard Ramar Smith.
The team also had 6-7 sophomore wing J.P. Prince, 6-9 junior post Ryan Childress, senior guard Jordan Howell, freshman post Brian Williams, sophomore post Duke Crews and sophomore wing Josh Tabb.
The 2008 team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tourney but was eliminated 79-60 by Louisville. Pearl was selected the SEC Coach of the Year and also earned the Adolph Rupp National Coach of the Year award.
Will the Vols ever make it back to No. 1? Only time will tell.
The UT program has some of the key ingredients it takes to reach the top, including a passionate fan base that can turn Thompson-Boling Arena into a vicious venue for opposing teams.
But reaching the top usually means a team has to have not only talented players but mentally tough players to win on the road and in post-season environment. I believe they have a coach in place now who can recruit such players.
In his second season, Martin’s squad appears to be coming on strong at the right time – the end of the year.
Being ranked No. 1 is a wonderful thing, but cutting down the net after all the March Madness is even better.
Tennessee still has that to shoot for.