By Steve Williams

The Tennessee men’s basketball team finally landed a big one when the Vols held off No. 4 ranked Kentucky 82-80 last week.

And while this young but surprising UT squad had come up on the short end of the stick in five previous outings against nationally ranked teams, including a two-point loss at North Carolina, Coach Rick Barnes pointed to those experiences as a contributing factor in knocking off the Big Blue.

“I’d think the schedule we played this year finally showed up and helped us break through and get a win against an outstanding team, one of the top teams in the country,” said Barnes. “I thought our poise was great from the beginning. I thought we stayed locked in with what we were trying to get done throughout the game.”

The Vols (11-9 overall and 4-4 SEC) wouldn’t make the NCAA tourney field if it were announced today, but members of the selection committee, behind closed doors, would probably be saying things like – “Man, what about this Tennessee team? If they had pulled off that win in Chapel Hill and won that overtime game against Oregon, in addition to beating Kentucky, they’d get my vote!”

The good news is there’s enough of the season left for these Vols to earn a post-season bid.

They’ll go against former UT coach Bruce Pearl and his Tigers at Auburn Tuesday night at 9 to end the first half of conference play. Another road game at Mississippi State follows Saturday afternoon. Wins in these two games would be huge.

After that, Tennessee will play four of its next five games at home, with a trip to Lexington in the middle.

If the Vols stay healthy, I could see them going 7-3 over their final 10 SEC games.

A spot in the Big Dance this season may be a longshot, but a NIT berth is doable and would be an improvement for a program that hasn’t advanced beyond the SEC tourney the past two seasons.

These Vols are not only young but undersized. But they battle each time out. And our fans appreciate that kind of grit. That’s why over 19,000 came out for a late 9 o’clock tipoff last Tuesday.

Barnes acknowledged the fans’ support too in his post-game comments.

“I appreciate our fans,” he said. “I thought they were outstanding.”

Give Barnes a hand also. He outcoached Kentucky’s John Calipari, several times calling plays during timeouts that the Vols executed for points when they returned to the court.

Calipari’s strength, however, is not X’s and O’s. And it’s not recruiting either, as some may think.

It’s his program, which has become a magnet for top prospects and in many cases only a brief stopover point en route to the NBA. The program Kentucky has allowed Calipari to have may be legal under NCAA rules, but I question the ethics of it.

Calipari was a good loser.

“I have got to give credit to Rick and Tennessee,” he said. “Wow, what a game they played. We tried to come back a little bit, but it didn’t work. Congratulations. What a game. Great environment.”

I wasn’t in favor of letting Cuonzo get away, but I like Barnes. He’s also refreshing when it comes to press conferences and post-game comments. With him, it’s not coach speak.

My only complaint with Barnes since he arrived here is his refusal to continue the tradition of honoring Ray Mears, the late legendary Tennessee coach, by wearing a Big Orange blazer like Mears wore in games from 1962-77.

Pearl started a tradition of wearing the Big Orange blazer in games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt when Mears was still living. Cuonzo and Donnie Tyndall continued it during their time here as well. But Barnes refused last season, saying he didn’t want to bring attention to himself.

I wish Barnes would take another look at this. Wearing the Big Orange blazer would simply bring attention to the coach who first made UT men’s basketball really special. Rick could take pride in making that happen.