The rest of the countdown: 25-21 20-16 15-11 10-6
5. 2006 - Tennessee 80 #2 Florida 76 (Knoxville)
The Vols were 11-3 on January 21, but had lost two straight on a road trip through Baton Rouge and Memphis. LSU would eventually make the Final Four and Memphis was clearly more talented, but the losses threatened to take the air out of Bruce Pearl's first season. The shocking win over Texas had been immediately tempered by a sixteen point loss at Oklahoma State five days later, and the Vols had no other quality wins.
So this game with Florida - who saw #1 Duke lose before we tipped off, meaning a win would send the Gators to the top of the polls - was a crossroad for Pearl and the Vols. Was the team we saw in Austin for real? Could we really dare to dream of making the NCAA Tournament? Or were we really still nothing more than an average team in disguise?
And behind all of that: was Tennessee Basketball actually going to matter?
Pearl went all-access for this game, and if you've never seen this video before, you're in for a treat. This particular video cuts out the part several hours before tipoff when Pearl stood on a ladder at the gate, and preached to the students who were waiting to get inside. Cuonzo Martin cannot and should not be Bruce Pearl, he has to be Cuonzo Martin. But Bruce Pearl was Bruce Pearl, which meant he was the guy who stood on that ladder and screamed, "We are your basketball team, I am your basketball coach, now let's go in there and KICK FLORIDA'S (FULMERIZED)!"
This is the loudest game I've ever been to at Thompson-Boling. Watch and listen to the madness:
4. 2006 - #10 Tennessee 76 #12 Florida 72 (Gainesville)
Round Two came thirty-two days later. But this time the Vols weren't simply playing for respect and relevance. The win over Florida in Knoxville was the first of eight in a row, running UT's conference record to 10-1. But when the Vols finally lost at Alabama, it gave the Gators an opportunity to get back into the race. So now the return bout would be for the SEC Eastern Division Championship.
Like the first meeting, this was a war. Bruce Pearl's sweat ran through every piece of clothing he had on - let's just say he didn't choose that particular suit color again the rest of his career.
After the Vols scored the first four points, Florida led until the under 16 in the second half. But a key 7-0 run between the under 16 and the under 12 put the Vols in front, and UT padded its lead to eight with six minutes to play. Then the Gators made their run, pulling within three at 69-66 with two minutes to play. That's when C.J. Watson decked Joakim Noah, knocking out one of his teeth.
An incredible three-point shooting run followed: Corey Brewer hit a three to tie it with 1:28 to go. JaJuan Smith immediately answered with a three on the other end. Then, off an offensive rebound, Maryville's Lee Humphrey hit his only three of the night to again tie it at 72-72. And when Tennessee lost it out of bounds with 19 seconds to play, the Gators had the last shot and should've done no worse than overtime.
Cue the OOBTO:
It's so impressive that Bradshaw not only got the steal, but was heady enough to not immediately turn it back over under pressure, and instead made a great spin move for the score. The Vols clinched the East and swept the Gators. Florida, of course, went on to win the National Championship this year and the following year. They went 1-3 against the Vols, 0-3 when Chris Lofton played.
3. 2010: #15 Tennessee 76 #1 Kansas 68 (Knoxville)
The 2006 win at Texas at least makes sense in hindsight. I'm still not sure this one does.
Nine days after the arrests that got Tyler Smith dismissed and put Melvin Goins, Brian Williams, and Cameron Tatum on suspension, Tennessee beat the number one team in the country. Kansas was for real - the Jayhawks were the eventual number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. And the Vols were for real too, making the Elite Eight.
But the lineup that did all the work on this day still defies belief. It's not just that the Vols were without those four arrested players. It's that J.P. Prince played only 14 minutes and Wayne Chism just 19 due to foul trouble, managing just eight points apiece.
So the Vols beat Kansas with Bobby Maze and Scotty Hopson. But they also beat them with Renaldo Woolridge, Skylar McBee, Josh Bone, Kenny Hall, and Steven Pearl.
Woolridge is a career 27.4% shooter from beyond the arc, and averages 1.4 rebounds. He hit 4 of 6 threes - two as the shot clock expired - for 14 points and 8 rebounds. Kenny Hall had to go in against Cole Aldrich, and held his own with 4 points and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes. And of course there's McBee, who has the distinct honor of hitting what might be the most famous shot of the Pearl Era, which is incredibly impressive considering he's not Chris Lofton.
There is no way this outcome should've happened. But it did. And it was the start of something great for the 2010 team.
2. 2008 - #2 Tennessee 66 #1 Memphis 62 (Memphis)
If you want to make the argument for this as number one, you certainly can. Both of our final two games on this countdown were negatively affected by an immediate loss. The difference here is that the most important games of the season were still left to play for the '08 Vols - it could've gotten even better. Though UT lost in the Sweet 16 that year, this team still stands as the best ever if you go by total wins (31), won the program's first SEC Championship in eight years, and the first outright championship in decades.
But this was the highpoint - not because they were number one, but because of who they are. This was a point in time when Memphis fans believed their program was vastly superior to the one in Knoxville, even though the Vols hold a decisive edge in the overall series. That belief was fueled by their head coach, who didn't even want to play us. Didn't think it was worth it. And everything you hate about Memphis and John Calipari was magnified by their undefeated record, built off the strength of a Conference USA schedule.
This is also the college basketball game that felt most like college football: Saturday night, a week's worth of buildup, a national stage (to my knowledge, this is still the highest rated non-UNC/Duke college basketball telecast in the history of ESPN), and a team that is just so easy to hate. You don't hear much anymore about Memphis being better than Tennessee...and this game is the reason why.
To watch this game live was to be unable to breathe for two hours. Again, we'll just let it speak for itself:
1. 2010 Sweet 16 - (6) Tennessee 76 (2) Ohio State 73
I like this one at the top for this reason: when I think back on last year's team, my dominant impression is still "we made the Elite Eight!", not "ugh, we were one point away from the Final Four". Both the Ohio State and Memphis wins were iconic for the program - first number one, first Elite Eight - but the most iconic programs measure their success by what they do in March. And so this win stands as the best in school history.
You remember the details, I'm sure, being that it was played just barely over a year ago. Wouldn't want to talk about it any differently a year later than I did in the immediate postgame recap, other than to say that this win is the defining moment of our greatest team - all they went through, all the struggle, all the great wins - that group of kids deserved something like this:
There really isn't one defining moment for Pearl himself - just as it's this entire list, it's also the reasons he got fired. But what you can see from this list is the journey from Austin, Texas in December 2005 to the Elite Eight in 2010. Bruce Pearl took Tennessee Basketball on an incredible journey. That journey has now been trusted to Cuonzo Martin...and we all hope that he can keep it moving forward.