2005 was supposed to be a great year for Tennessee. The football team was coming off a division title and was projected to be the best team in the SEC, and the basketball team was supposed to reap the benefit of three years of patience with Buzz Peterson. But instead, everything went downhill.
The 04-05 basketball season was expected to be the one that validated Buzz Peterson's tenure as basketball coach. Peterson followed the Jerry Green era that, despite its rocky end, saw four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Peterson's first team was unlucky, losing eight games by three points or less. We understood. Peterson's second team was screwed over in the final week of the season, when Jon Higgins was suspended for academic reasons the week of the SEC Tournament, the Vols were bounced in the first game and then became the first 9-7 SEC team to not be selected for the NCAA Tournament. We were angry, but not at Peterson...we understood.
Peterson's third team was rebuilding with the loss of Ron Slay's senior class, but made it back to the NIT for the second consecutive year. We were patient, and we understood. This team had no seniors and brought everyone back, then added a guard from Kentucky named Chris Lofton. This was to be the year that Peterson and Tennessee arrived together.
But inexplicably, the Vols were worse. Tennessee lost to UT-Chattanooga in the second home game of the season, and it didn't get any better. The Vols lost to Vanderbilt by 25, Kentucky by 22, Alabama by 18, and Florida by 11...all in Knoxville. Tennessee went 14-17, 6-10 in the SEC, and despite the fact that everyone seemed to like Peterson as a person, his record and his final season spoke for itself, and Peterson was fired. Tennessee's basketball enthusiasm died a slow and obvious death during his four years, and apathy set in.
Being that we're a football school, the concerns of the basketball program were always on the backburner anyway. And even though basketball success never materialized with Peterson, in 2005 the football team was ranked #3 in preseason polls, and we were locked in for what was supposed to be a championship year.
And then the Vols went 5-6, missed a bowl game for the first time in 17 years, Randy Sanders was fired and Phillip Fulmer's seat got warm for the first time. We weren't used to losing at all, and we didn't understand. Anger, frustration and depression were rampant in Big Orange Country, and with so much apathy towards the basketball program, we weren't expecting anything good to happen at all, and even if it did, it would take another 3-4 years of rebuilding. It was a dark moment.
Mike Hamilton would later say that in 2005, Tennessee basketball didn't need just a coach, it needed an evangelist. And out of nowhere, a northerner from Wisconsin-Milwaukee brought fire to the people.
We weren't prepared to care about Bruce Pearl. At least not right away. And while he would later get around to painting his chest, rapping, and the like, Pearl put his head down in his first seven months on the job. The talent he had to work with wasn't the greatest in the world: the 05-06 Vols put a lineup of CJ Watson, Chris Lofton, Stanley Asumnu, Dane Bradshaw, and Major Wingate on the floor. At this point, Watson showed few signs of his future NBA talent, Lofton was a sophomore with a nice stroke but nothing more, and Bradshaw was the guard Vol fans were upset was given a scholarship over Lee Humphrey of Florida, and was soon to be a 6'4" power forward.
We were expecting a long rebuilding project, and when the only success most Vol basketball fans knew came attached to Jerry Green, we didn't even really care. If Pearl succeeded, great. If not, oh well. We didn't know if he would get it done or not, we just knew it wouldn't be soon. At SEC Media Days, the Vols were picked fifth in the SEC East. This was going to take some time.
Pearl's Vols started 5-0. They beat ETSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State and Appalachian State. The Murray State game was played in Nashville, the other four all in Knoxville. The team was playing hard, and they were pressing, which was new, but nothing to get excited about.
The Vols then traveled to Austin to face #6 Texas on December 17. And everything changed.
Tennessee led 10-5 at the first media timeout. A sophomore walk-on named JaJuan Smith checked into the game. And Pearl the evangelist signaled for the heavens to open, and the heavens responded: the Vols went on a 13-0 run, including two incredible 3's from JaJuan Smith, and suddenly Tennessee led 23-5. At #6 Texas.
It felt like a tease waiting to happen. But every time Texas started to make a run, the Vols hit a three. Sometimes it was Lofton (who hit five). Sometimes it was Watson. Sometimes it was Juanny (who hit four). The Vols had a 20 point lead at halftime, and Texas got no closer than 11 in the second half. Tennessee went 12-24 from beyond the arc, an absurd 25-28 at the free throw line, and turned the Horns over 22 times. And eventually, you stopped getting nervous...Texas wasn't coming back. The Vols won 95-78. And Bruce Pearl had our attention.
He would struggle to keep it right away, as the Vols cracked the Top 25 but were immediately handed a reality check by Oklahoma State, who beat Tennessee in Tulsa 89-73 just five days later. Tennessee won three games over low-major teams and then SEC play began in Columbia.
In one of the forgotten key moments of the Pearl era, the Vols were down 35-23 at halftime on the road in Pearl's first SEC game. The offense wasn't working, and it wasn't getting better right away - South Carolina led 40-25 with eighteen minutes to play. Pearl again commanded the heavens, and again they opened up for him: the Vols hit a stunning 10 threes in the game's final 18 minutes, scored 53 points in the second half, and walked out of Columbia with a 76-69 win.
It was here that the legend of Chris Lofton began to take shape. #5 was 6 of 7 from beyond the arc in this game, which at the time was a jaw-dropping irregularity. After beating Georgia at home, Tennessee was physically overmatched in a loss at LSU, then had the fortune of playing #4 Memphis and #2 Florida back-to-back. When the Vols fought hard but lost at Memphis, most assumed that Tennessee had been fortunate early, but this was still going to be a difficult season. With the undefeated Gators on deck, it looked like three straight losses and a dose of reality were coming. But if Pearl got our attention with the win at Texas, he made sure he kept it on January 21, 2006.
It remains one of the best basketball games I've ever seen. Florida led 42-36 at halftime, but Tennessee never let them get too far away, finally catching up with ten minutes to play. As The BruceBall Blog points out, in the final ten minutes of this game, neither team led by more than four points.
Tied at 76 in the game's final minute, Chris Lofton and Dane Bradshaw combined for one of the most exciting plays of the decade:
Maryville's Lee Humphrey missed a three on the other end, and Chris Lofton put the finishing touches on his 29 point effort with two free throws...and the Vols beat #2 Florida 80-76.
This was the start of a magical four week run. With all Vol fans now on board and giving their support, the team responded with an incredible eight game winning streak. You kept waiting for it to end, and for this first year team to struggle...but the Vols just kept winning.
At 16-3 and 7-1 in the SEC, and ranked 11th, the Vols went to Lexington, where nothing good happens. The Vols had won only three times in the history of Rupp Arena, and hadn't done it since 1999. But Kentucky's own picked this night to play what might be the greatest game of his career.
The first ten minutes were back and forth, but the Vols took the lead when Lofton got hot. #5 knocked down his first four threes and Tennessee built an eight point lead, but the Cats worked it back to three at halftime. Tennessee kept holding UK off, but having seen Tennessee falter so many times at Rupp, it felt like a matter of time. And Kentucky, true to form, wrestled the lead away with five minutes to play.
Tennessee got it back on a Major Wingate score with 2:30 to play. But then Lofton put the finishing touches on his night, this time from inside the arc: three straight slashing drives produced two scores and an and-one, and Kentucky was done. On the night, Lofton went 7 of 10 from beyond the arc and scored 31 points, getting only his final two at the free throw line. Tennessee broke an eight game losing streak to Kentucky, and Bruce Pearl added another notch to his first year belt.
How much did the win mean to Pearl?
Four days later, Lofton topped himself: he shot 9 of 12 from beyond the arc at Georgia, good for 33 points in an 83-78 win. The Vols closed out the win streak by beating Auburn at home to move to 19-3, 10-1 in the SEC, and 8th in the polls.
Alabama beat Tennessee in Tuscaloosa, but there was no time to dwell on it: up next was the return bout with the Gators, and the SEC East crown was on the line. And again, this game didn't disappoint. The Tennessee-Florida basketball rivalry this decade has followed the path of the football one: plenty of bad blood between the two teams. It was true when Jerry Green's teams were going against Teddy Dupay, Matt Bonner, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, and it was true for Bruce Pearl against these Gators. In this one, CJ Watson decked Joakim Noah with an elbow and knocked out one of his teeth.
Florida again led early, but the Vols were gritty late. In fact, the Vols surged to an eight point lead with five minutes to play, but Florida battled back again. The final two minutes served as an appropriate climax to this game and the season: the Vols led 69-66 with 1:28 left after Watson decked Noah, and the following sequence unfolded: Corey Brewer hit a three to tie it, the Vols went downcourt and JaJuan Smith hit a three to give the Vols the lead by three, Florida came down and missed a three, got the rebound, and then Lee Humphrey drained a three to tie it again. Just watching this game was exhausting.
The Gators had the ball on a side inbounds with eighteen seconds left, still tied at 72-72. And once again, Dane Bradshaw did what he had to do:
With Pearl sweating through his suit, the Vols escaped Gainesville with a 74-72 win, and the Eastern Division Championship. Tennessee was 2-0 against Florida on the year...six weeks later, the Gators would win the National Championship.
At this point, Tennessee was 20-4, 11-2 in the SEC. The season had been a magical run that just kept getting better, coming from out of nowhere to surprise you every night. Maybe the team simply wasn't going to get any better, maybe opponents started figuring out how to play against Pearl's style, maybe fatigue set in...but the team reached its ceiling with the win over Florida. The Vols blew a huge lead in a home loss to Arkansas three days later, then lost an even more disappointing contest 80-78 to Kentucky in Knoxville. Tennessee won at Vanderbilt to close out the regular season, but then Pearl showed even he couldn't change Tennessee's fate in the SEC Tournament, as the Vols were upset in the second round by South Carolina and quickly bounced from Nashville.
Still, at 21-7 the Vols had a very impressive resume, and were rewarded with a two seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was Tennessee's first appearance in the big dance in five years. And the Vols and Chris Lofton found one more magical moment in Pearl's first season, in the opening round game against Winthrop:
The Vols were upset by 7 seed Wichita State in the second round, the first team of lesser talent to beat Tennessee all season. But despite all that, and even more so looking back on it now...how incredible was this first year for Bruce Pearl and Tennessee Basketball? With zero expectations and little interest, Pearl turned Tennessee around overnight, and had them playing for and winning championships in his very first season. This first team and this first run will always be special - this basketball team put all of the Tennessee family on its back, and carried us through the winter.
But Pearl was just getting started.