By Steve Williams
The excitement seems to be spilling over for the Tennessee men’s basketball team this season. And I can understand why. I don’t believe I ever have felt so confident about the Vols’ chances of winning every time they step on the hardwood.
Thank you Rick Barnes and staff and of course the guys making it happen.
As I tuned in the telecast of the Arkansas game last week, ESPN’s halftime crew was raving about our team:
“How good is Tennessee?”
The No. 3 Vols indeed are among the elite of college basketball this season, with a chance to move up even higher in the polls this week.
Such recognition is wonderful, but it doesn’t mix well with Barnes’ coaching philosophy of constantly looking for things to work on to get better. Tennessee outscored the Razorbacks 106-87 that night, but Barnes pointed out his team was outscored in the second half. And even after that, he warned last week, “There’s still a long way to go.”
And he is so right.
It’s January and March Madness is light years away on the basketball calendar. As fans, we don’t have far to look back and see that a great season can end in a single game, as it did in that second round loss to Loyola-Chicago in the NCAA tournament last year.
Basketball, as you know, is really a tournament sport, and when the Big Dance starts, only one of 68 teams can go 6-0 and kiss the gold ball. All the others, no matter how good they are, will eventually trip over their feet and fall.
In the meantime, we can enjoy this season’s journey, which looks so promising. Not only is this a talented team, it is one that appears to be packed with top character guys from one end of the roster to the other. And that means a lot. In my coverage of sports through the years, I have often seen character make the difference when two teams are equally talented.
Right now, we can say this looks like one of Tennessee’s best teams ever. But I don’t think we can fairly compare teams from different eras.
The late, great Ray Mears had one of the nation’s best teams in 1966-67, but it was a different game back then. They didn’t have a shot clock or a 3-point line.
Also, the NCAA tourney field of teams was about half of what it is now, and only the SEC champion made the bracket. That ’67 Mears team lost in a region semifinal game and finished ranked No. 8 in the country. It went 15-3 in the conference and finished with a 21-7 overall record.
Mears also had two teams in the Ernie and Bernie era that were great ones and ranked No. 7 in the country during the season, but both were eliminated in the first round in 1976 and 1977.
Even before Mears took over the UT program, Coach Emmett Lowery’s 1958-59 Vols ranked as high as No. 5 in the national poll but didn’t qualify for the NCAA tourney. My guess would be it was Kentucky which took that spot.
Don DeVoe’s 1980-81 Vols ranked as high as No. 8 during the season and finished ranked No. 15, losing in the region semis.
The 1999-2000 team Jerry Green coached was ranked No. 5 during the season and No. 11 in the final poll. It too was ousted in a region semifinal. The following season, Green’s team was ranked No. 4 during the season but lost in the first round.
Coach Buzz Peterson was a likeable guy but couldn’t win enough games. He did though leave the cupboard stocked with a lot of good talent and Bruce Pearl had the recipe to put the Vols back in the national spotlight. His 2007-08 team won at Memphis in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 to take over the top spot in the rankings. The Vols went on top post a 31-5 record, but lost in a regional semifinal game.
Two years later, Pearl’s Vols were ranked No. 8 during the season but ended up ranked No. 15, losing 70-69 to Michigan State in UT’s first and only Elite Eight appearance.
Cuonzo Martin’s 2013-14 Tennessee team was unranked but got on a roll in the tourney and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before bowing to Michigan 73-71.
As I researched UT’s greatest teams and seasons, I ran across a very interesting note … Did you know the first ever Tennessee men’s basketball game was played on Jan. 22, 1909? That’s right. Tomorrow will mark the 110th birthday of the UT program.
Over all those years, the Vols have been in the NCAA tournament 21 times and have a 20-22 record. That’s nothing to brag about. But maybe this season will turn out to be very special. Until then, enjoy.