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Mike Lopresti | | January 16, 2019

Why red-hot Tennessee is ready to be No. 1 if Michigan or Virginia stumble

No. 3 Tennessee beats Arkansas, 106-87

This was Feb. 25, 2008, and look what had been happening in sports.

Tiger Woods just won his fourth consecutive PGA victory. The New York Giants upset the unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. LSU, coached by Les Miles, was national football champion. The man he replaced, Nick Saban, finished his first season at Alabama unranked and 7-6, but at least won the Independence Bowl.

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And there was a new No. 1 in college basketball — the Tennessee Volunteers, who had never been there before. Since they quickly lost to Vanderbilt, they were booted out of the penthouse the next week and haven’t been back since. One week on the mountaintop.

That might change very soon.

True, the spotlight at the moment is on the unbeatens, Virginia and Michigan. One or the other will certainly be No. 1 in the next rankings, if they survive trying weekends – Virginia in the high-octane collision at Duke, Michigan at Wisconsin. And if they don’t . . .

Surely, the voters – and the victims – have had to notice what Tennessee has been up to. The 15-1 Vols have won 11 games in a row, and steamrolled their first four SEC opponents by 46, 24, 11 and 19 points. It has left the other league coaches delivering a Tennessee testimonial.

Arkansas’ Mike Anderson, after taking a 106-87 thumping on Tuesday: “They’re probably the No. 1 team in the country, with the way they’re playing right now.”

Georgia’s Tom Crean, with visions of that 96-50 pounding earlier this month: “Incredible, physical strength and speed, to go with tremendous mental toughness. You can just sense the mental toughness. There’s a togetherness, there’s a connectedness with them.”



Kentucky’s John Calipari, who won’t see the business end of the Vols until next month but knows one thing — he is 0-3 against Rick Barnes in Knoxville. And he was the one who encouraged Barnes, a good friend, to go after the Tennessee position four years ago: “I didn’t think he’d be beating us this regular, or I probably would have told him not to take the job.”

Barnes’ response to all the verbal candy and flowers is one long series of wary sound bites.

“Our guys aren’t perfect in any way.”

And, discussing the regular film study the Vols conduct  . . .

“The fact is, when we come out of that room every day, we know we have to get better.”

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And . . .

“If we stay right where we are right now, we won’t be able to achieve what we’d like to achieve. I know people think that’s a coach cliche.  . . . That’s all we have. All we have is today.”

And finally . . .

“You start thinking you’re all that, you’re real quickly going to be chopped down.”

About the only unflattering headlines the Vols have had lately were when some of the players did the Gator chomp in front of the Florida student section after winning in Gainesville.

“I think they know I don’t like it,” Barnes said.

You want to know who positively loves the Vols? The stat sheet. It should have Rocky Top as accompanying music. To check off a few numbers in orange:

Ten of the 11 victories in the current winning streak were by an average of 25 points. The other was a three-pointer over Gonzaga. Who was No. 1 at the time. This item from the Tennessee game notes: The last day the Vols lost a game, the U.S. government was up and running, and UCLA was ranked.

Tennessee is second in the nation in field goal percentage, 11th in field goal defense, fourth in scoring margin, second in assists per game and assist-turnover ratio, seventh in blocked shots. Anything the Vols are lousy at? Well, they’re 238th in 3-pointers made a game.

They’re averaging 87 points a game, but they also know how to lock down on defense when they must. The second highest scoring team in the nation is Gonzaga. To finish off the Zags, the Vols held them to no field goals the last 4:15.

Grant Williams is the top scorer in the SEC. His teammate Admiral Schofield is second.

Tennessee has six players averaging in double figures. Two of them come off the bench. Those two — Lamonte' Turner and Jordan Bowden — combined for 40 points against Arkansas. Four different Tennessee players have had double-doubles this season. To put it in the vernacular that a player with the first name of Admiral might appreciate, with the Vols, it’s all hands on deck. Or INAM, as the Tennessee mantra goes.

INAM? It’s Not About Me.

“We really hone in on that, we really take that to heart,” Schofield said on a post-game TV interview. “We don’t see any value in just one person, we see a value in our team. We know there’s strength in numbers.”

Tennessee has not trailed by double digits in a game this season. Not once.

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One loss. To Kansas. In overtime. That and Gonzaga are the only two Volunteer games decided by single digits.

So while Virginia and Michigan fight for the top, Tennessee is right behind, with a veteran coach who intends to ask for more, and a veteran roster that understands. Of the Vols’ top eight players, seven are spending at least their third year in college. Talent, plus experience. No wonder they always seem to be ahead by 20.

“They don’t beat themselves,” Calipari said. “If you’re going to beat Tennessee, you must beat them, they’re not going to give you a game.”

They sound like a team on a mission, and why not? Never mind only one week in all history spent as No. 1. Just count the past Tennessee Final Fours if you want to know what drives these Vols: None.

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