For much of this season it’s been a dream year for the Tennessee men’s basketball team. In a period when football remains down and the usually championship level Lady Vols have had rough sailing, the men’s squad for much of the season has been ranked number one.
They even accomplished something no previous UT men’s group had ever done, winning 19 straight games. The great teams featuring Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld never did that. Neither did last year’s team that tied for the SEC regular season title and won the SEC Tournament. Not even the 2009-10 team, the only UT group to ever reach the Elite Eight, achieved that feat.
But then came a February 16 game against Kentucky in Lexington and the total demolition by the Wildcats of the Volunteers. The 17-point defeat didn’t indicate just how badly Tennessee was beaten. They were pounded on both boards and immediately skeptics from such places as ESPN and Sports Illustrated began pronouncing them a fraud. The criticism really kicked up a notch after they dropped a close one on the road to LSU. As they fell from number one to number seven, there were plenty of folks proclaiming this was another one of those teams that had “peaked too soon.”
All that talk faded though after Saturday’s dominant revenge victory over Kentucky in Knoxville. The Vols held the Wildcats to 23 percent shooting in the first half, forced eight turnovers and limited them to a season worse 24 point half. While they didn’t exactly hit on all cylinders offensively themselves, they did enough to jump out by 13, and then accelerated the blowout in the second half. At one point they were up by 22, and the 71-52 final was more than an indication the Volunteers are certainly capable of a long postseason run.
They got a career game from guard Jordan Bone, who scored 27 points, ran the half court offense perfectly, and made 11 of 15 shots. Tennessee came into the game number two in the country in assists-to-turnover ratio, and only had five turnovers the entire game (two in the first half). Grant Williams added 24, while the Tennessee defense did a number on P.J. Washington. After Williams had a dismal game in Lexington Washington had proclaimed to the national media “I feel like I’m the best player in the SEC.” Saturday he wasn’t even the best on the UK team, as he had only 13 points and was repeatedly the victim of spin moves by Williams.
Tennessee survived a poor offensive game from the usually reliable Admiral Scofield, who had a mere seven points. But Bone and Williams more than compensated for his lack of scoring. Tennessee has now won 25 straight home court games, and beaten UK four straight times in Knoxville.
Of course the Vols know the real tests lie ahead. First comes the SEC Tournament in Nashville next week and then the NCAAs. Their first goal is to defend their SEC title and secure a number one seed. Their ultimate goal is to make the Final Four and win a title. The way they played against UK Saturday is how they’ll have to play in the postseason against quality teams on neutral floors.
They’ve shown they can do that. They’ve also shown that they can struggle against poor teams and get beat by good ones when they don’t play consistently on both ends of the floor. The Volunteer team that showed up Saturday can defeat anyone anywhere. Whether that team continues to appear over the rest of this month will determine whether this winds up as the greatest Tennessee men’s squad in history, or one of its biggest disappointments.