With the football Vols safely tucked away in Nashville on December 30, we turn our attention to basketball, where we're thankful to have a program that still gives us something to be invested in on Saturdays now that fall has come and gone. The Vols jumped up to #11 in the AP poll and #13 with the coaches this week, the highest ranked (and only undefeated) SEC team in the mix. In four days the Vols will take their momentum to Pittsburgh and the Consol Energy Center for the 2011 SEC/Big East Invitational. It's the middle of what looks like an incredibly impressive Big East gauntlet for the Vols this year: Villanova, Pittsburgh, and UConn, all far removed from the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena. UT already got Nova...now the challenge increases, and that's an understatement: this could be the best team Tennessee plays all year.
But what the Vols did against Villanova was nothing new - in fact, with Bruce Pearl now in his sixth season in Knoxville, Pittsburgh will be the sixteenth ranked non-conference foe the Vols have played during the regular season. That number should go to eighteen in six years with Memphis and UConn still on the schedule for 2011 - for some perspective, pre-Pearl it took Tennessee twelve years to play eighteen ranked non-conference opponents. So Bruce has doubled the workload and the opportunity for this program on the national stage.
What's more, the Vols are 8-7 against ranked non-conference foes in the regular season under Pearl - that number is even more impressive when you consider that Tennessee was unranked in five of those games, and has been the higher ranked team in those matchups only thrice. So not only has Pearl given the Vols a chance to play against some of college basketball's best, but he's gotten the job done more often than not against them. Winning at Pittsburgh on Saturday will be a tall order...but it's nothing Pearl and this program haven't seen before.
Here's a look back at the eight wins during this run, as we countdown Bruce Pearl's best regular season non-conference wins at Tennessee:
(Note: Texas wasn't ranked when the Vols played them in December 2006, so they're not on the list...but this never gets old.)
7. #16 Tennessee 80 #24 Marquette 68 - December 16, 2008 - Nashville
In our previous appearance in the SEC/Big East Invitational, the same '08-'09 Vols picked themselves up off the deck after losing to Gonzaga and scored a huge victory in Nashville. If you were to ask, "What's the best game Wayne Chism ever played?", the answer is the Sweet 16 game against Ohio State. But his second best game, for my money, was this one: 26 points and 11 rebounds in 29 minutes. His counterpart, Marquette's Dwight Burke, had 3 points. The Vols gained the lead in the second half, but Marquette cut it to 70-68 with 2:24 to play. That's when Josh Tabb hit the biggest shot of his Tennessee career with a three on the other end, and the Vols used the same script from the Georgetown game: a 10-0 run to finish knocked off the Golden Eagles, and gave the Vols another win vs. the Big East.
From the archives: The one where Joel was drunk on Nyquil
6. Tennessee 79 #15 Oklahoma State 77 - December 18, 2006 - Nashville
Good things have happened to the Vols in the Gaylord Entertainment Center (or whatever it's called these days - have any two venues changed names as many times as the professional sports stadium & arena in Nashville?). After getting blasted in Madison Square Garden by Butler and #2 North Carolina, the Vols pulled off a December trifecta for the ages, with this game and the next one on our list preceding the Lofton-over-Durant game against Texas. Against Okie State, who gave Pearl his first loss the previous year, the Vols jumped to a 16-6 lead early before the Cowboys ran off ten straight to tie it. From there, the largest lead for either team was six points. This was an incredible basketball game, with the Vols forcing 23 turnovers to keep pace with a hot-shooting Cowboy squad. Duke Crews introduced himself to Vol fans with a 17-9, Chris Lofton did his thing with 20, but it was Dane Bradshaw who made the biggest play, just another chapter in his Tennessee legacy:
From the archives: Blender set to discombobulation
5. Tennessee 76 #16 Memphis 58 - December 6, 2006 - Knoxville
Twelve days earlier, Chris Lofton played his best game in a Tennessee uniform. I know the Kentucky game at Rupp in February 2006 was special - you shoot 7 of 10 from the arc against Kentucky, you get remembered forever. But this one - 34 points on 12 of 18 shooting, 5 rebounds in a very satisfying 18 point blowout against Tiger High and John Calipari - was the complete package. Sure, he hit six threes...but he also did everything else:
(These two games were Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes at their finest.)
From the SESB archives, one of my favorite things I've ever written: Chris Lofton is special
4. #24 Tennessee 78 #7 Villanova 68 - November 26, 2010 - New York
As you'll see, the top three on this list is pretty tough to crack. There's a ton of basketball left to be played, but that was a huge statement win for the Vols two weeks ago. Not only was the ever-present adversity in the building, but the way the Vols won showed maturity that few expected this team to display in November against a Top 10 Big East foe: team defense, great ball movement, and Tobias Harris just showing off. And if the Vols beat Pittsburgh on Saturday, it'll top this one.
3. Tennessee 95 #6 Texas 78 - December 17, 2006 - Austin
This wasn't a warning shot, it was something else entirely. If you weren't a Tennessee Basketball fan in the first two months of Bruce Pearl's tenure, it's hard to describe what it was like to watch this happen. You came into this game with wins over ETSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, and Appalachian State. 5-0 was nice, but you sat down to watch this hoping we didn't get killed on national television, and merely curious to see how we'd play against a real opponent.
The Vols jumped to a 12-5 lead at the first media timeout. Then JaJuan Smith came in off the bench and hit the shots that really started everything: a deep three, followed by an offensive foul on Texas, followed by Juanny crossing up a defender well beyond the three point line and bombing in another one, a play so full of the swagger that no one knew we had any right to even be thinking about. A few minutes later, it was 23-5. When Texas hit a three to, you know, reverse momentum? Lofton hit two threes in row. Together, Lofton and Juanny shot 9 of 15 from the three point line. The Vols led by as many as 25, and Texas got no closer than 11 in the second half. An unbelievable day, which as we've seen, wasn't a fluke...just the beginning.
2. #16 Tennessee 76 #1 Kansas 68 - January 10, 2010 - Knoxville
This ended up being one of the best chapters in the story of our favorite season ever...but by itself, even eleven months later, this will go down as one of the biggest upsets you or I will ever see. Ever.
The Texas game in 2005 was one kind of upset - the Vols were good, we just didn't know it yet, and we set the nets on fire from the arc. The Kansas game last year featured the Vols against the eventual #1 overall seed in the tournament, nine days after the arrests and without all four passengers. Then, let's take away our two best players with foul trouble: J.P. Prince played 14 minutes and fouled out, Wayne Chism played 19 with four fouls. Only eight points for each of them.
So yeah, the Vols beat Kansas with Bobby Maze and Scotty Hopson, who both were huge. But look who did the rest of the work - do you realize that Swipa played 34 minutes in this game?! Do you remember that he hit four threes? Or that Tennessee's bench minutes went to Baby Pearl (10) and Josh Bone (12), who hadn't come off the bench all year until the arrests?
And then there's this guy:
Tennessee had no business or right to even compete in this game. Instead, we won it. Totally insane.
From the archives: Out here hope remains
1. #2 Tennessee 66 #1 Memphis 62 - February 23, 2008 - Memphis
If the Kansas game can't knock this one off the top, I'm not sure anything ever will. Unless Calipari goes back to Memphis or the devil himself replaces Josh Pastner on the bench, you won't get a better environment - not for a non-conference regular season game. The fact that this was for #1 and that it was against Tiger High means it goes above the Kansas game on every level. There are unique upsets...and then there's beating your in-state rival on their home floor in a #1 vs. #2 game, and ruining their perfect season along the way. And as long as Memphis has a basketball program, they'll never forget this one. And neither will we.
From the archives: Pearlfection