Firmly into the mid-season grind of conference play, it is time to give the Tennessee Men’s Basketball team the credit that they are due. This team is good, really good. Now, since the Vols are the number one team in the nation for only the second time in program history, it would seem obvious that this is an impressive team. While that is true, there is something important to keep in mind as Tennessee looks down on the entire college basketball landscape below them: Not every conference win is going to be pretty, but all of them are quality. There is no such thing as an easy night in SEC play, particularly on the road or against rivals. While the Vols have escaped a few upset minded teams in their last several outings, they reverted to type when it counted. They found a way to win.
When a scrappy Alabama team came into Thompson Boling Arena, Tennessee took the floor knowing that a win would likely put them atop the polls for the second time in program history. The Vols came out strong against the Tide, looking every bit the part of the premier team in the nation, and held a commanding lead at the half. That was before Tide coach Avery Johnson must have given one of the most impressive halftime speeches of his decorated career, because Alabama came roaring out of the break to take the lead from the Vols. The exceptional run for the Tide was fueled by the white-hot shooting of John Petty, who looked unable to miss for much of the second half. Bama looked poised to steal a second huge game on the road in SEC play to pair with their earlier win in Rupp Arena, and though they fought the Vols all the way to the final buzzer, they couldn’t overcome a Tennessee where everyone settled into their role.
As Petty dropped bomb after bomb, hitting them all, each of Tennessee’s players stepped up to do what they did best. Petty began to be denied touches as Yves Pons and Mr. Team First, Jordan Bowden, lived on his hip. Petty still made some shots, but none of them were easy. It was the tight defense played by Bowden and Pons that limited Petty’s damage late in the half by denying him touches rather than forcing him to miss shots. While Perry was held in check, Tennessee settled in and started getting the ball back down low to Grant Williams, who made clutch bucket after clutch bucket to keep answering a surging Alabama team. Williams was fed consistently by pinpoint passes from Jordan Bone, who was playing tight defense on the other end of the floor and generating opportunities for Tennessee with his speed. Late in the game, when the Vols desperately needed a bucket, and Admiral Schofield shot bounced out and was tipped up by Kyle Alexander between two Tide players. Alexander couldn’t control the rebound, but he tipped the ball up, keeping it alive, at least five times until he was able to hold on. The offensive rebound resulted in a second chance for Tennessee to convert on the possession. Then, late in the game, Grant Williams fouled out with the game on the line. On a day when he had struggled to hit his shot, with the game on his shoulders, Admiral Schofield found a way to get the go ahead shot to fall. Then, back on defense, Admiral showed one of the things that makes him so valuable, he does so much for this team besides score. Admiral playing tight defense off a switch caught Petty by surprise as he was trying to set up for a final shot and resulted in him being called for a travel. Tennessee then threw the ball in to Lamonte Turner, who was immediately fouled. At the line, needing to hit both shots to salt the game away, Turner again showed that pressure does not phase him in the least, draining both shots from the stripe. Ultimately, Tennessee survived against a scrappy, unranked, conference opponent that will likely make the Big Dance in March. That ability ended up being what allowed them to rise to number one.
The win against Alabama propelled the Vols to the number one spot in the polls for the first time in eleven years. Ironically, just as the situation had been eleven seasons earlier, the Vols first defended that number one ranking on the road in Memorial Gym against Vanderbilt. The Commodores always play Tennessee tough in basketball, particularly when the game is in Nashville, and though Vanderbilt’s season has been a bit of a disappointment so far, they gave the Vols all they wanted. Tennessee struggled from the field all night, and though they settled for jump shots and three pointers too often, the shots they were taking were still good shots. They just wouldn’t fall. For their part, Vanderbilt put up the best shooting performance they have had for the entire season, particularly from three. In the second half, Tennessee was forcing the Commodores to hold the ball deep into the shot clock, forcing them to take difficult, contested shots. And Vanderbilt just kept hitting them. It was almost like the Commodores couldn’t miss in the second half, while the Vols were unable to buy a bucket. The magic of college basketball is that some nights you can go hot or cold from the field, and that any team can pull an upset on any given night. It certainly felt in Memorial Gym that the ‘Dores were going to replicate the upset from more than a decade before.
Then, Grant Williams happened. While all his teammates seemed to be struggling from the field, with the game slipping away, and the number one spot in danger, Williams absolutely took over. Vanderbilt simply had no answer for the reigning SEC Player of the Year on the low block. Jordan Bone’s superb passes ensured that despite Vandy’s best efforts, Williams consistently got the ball in a position that he could score it. Each trip down the floor, Williams got the ball in deep, utilized another move from his extensive tool kit, powered his way to his spot on the floor, and hit his shot. What allowed Williams to make history, however, was his ability to create contact, draw fouls, hit shots anyway, and get to the free throw line. In a game where each and every point mattered, the Commodores struggled from the charity stripe, while Grant went an astounding twenty-three for twenty-three. Williams proved to be too much for Vanderbilt, and his ten points in the overtime period elevated him to forty-three points for the game. The incredible performance by Williams was Tennessee’s best player putting the team on his back and willing them to a win. A second win they likely shouldn’t have gotten but secured nevertheless by finding a new way.
Stepping out of the SEC, the Vols next welcomed the West Virginia Mountaineers into Thompson Boling Arena. The Bob Huggins coached Mountaineers were a pre-season top ten team, but injuries had seen them arrive in Knoxville at .500 with only a single Big XII win. Now, the lone conference victory had come in their previous outing, when they had upset number seven Kansas, a team that represented the only blemish on the Vols’ record. Huggins is an excellent coach, and as they illustrated against the Jayhawks, when their shots are falling, they can beat anyone in the country. Unfortunately for the Vols, West Virginia opened the game with their shots falling, jumping out to an eleven-point lead early on Tennessee’s home floor. Again, the Vols settled in and weathered yet another team shooting white hot against them from range. Tennessee clamped down on defense, and settled into their identity on offense, Jordan Bone making smart passes and shots, working the ball down low, and grinding away at the opponent. Lamonte Turner turned in a season high in scoring in his first start of the season, while Grant Williams hurt the Mountaineers over and over deep in the post. Admiral struggled shooting the ball again, but he refused to let his slump impact the rest of his game, turning in another double-double. Tennessee pulled away from West Virginia in the second half, forcing and then capitalizing on multiple turnovers. Another win and another game where this team weathered a real, different type of adversity to emerge victorious.
The Vols were then back on the road, this time to Colombia, South Carolina to take on the Gamecocks. Carolina already boasts wins this season over then top twenty Auburn and top fifteen Mississippi State. The Gamecocks are led by senior forward Chris Silva, and he started the game hot putting up twenty-two in the first half. Unfortunately for Carolina, Silva was essentially their entire offense in the first half, his excellent effort allowing them to keep close to the Vols at best. For Tennessee, a larger offensive burden rested on the starters than normal as the front runner for National Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Bowden was unavailable to play after tweaking a knee in shootaround. Missing such a key piece of the rotation, in a hostile environment, against a quality opponent could have caused Tennessee to misfire and stumble in conference play. However, with Bowden out, Tennessee’s Peanut Butter and Jelly reemerged as Admiral Schofield found his shot in the second half to lead the Vols in scoring with twenty-four. Despite his strong start, Tennessee also put the clamps on Silva in the second half, holding him to only six more points. An impressive performance from their starters, seeing all but Kyle Alexander in double figures, meant that the Vols came back to Knoxville with another twenty-point conference victory.
The last four contests for the Vols have seen them weather four very different types of games. It has also seen them find a way to come out of each one with a victory. There are no easy venues in the SEC. There are also no opponents that will be easy victories. Each road trip is dangerous, even more so with the number one ranking and the requisite target that goes with it. These Vols will face another road challenge Saturday as they travel to square off against Texas A&M. The goal for Rick Barnes and his team will be to return as winners, still atop the polls. Beyond that however, Barnes will be looking for his team to continue to grow, to face adversity, and to keep finding a way to win. Ugly or otherwise, a victory is a victory, and this team feels like they are already settling in to that March kind of mindset. This team is something special, Vol fans, so enjoy the ride and get used to survive and advance. Barnes is teaching that now, so that it is second nature when the Big Dance rolls around.