Thursday, March 01, 2007

Representing The Family

Last year at this time, Tennessee was in the midst of a magical basketball season when they welcomed Kentucky to Thompson-Boling Arena. Mike Hamilton and Bruce Pearl and company set the stage for a special night, with the orange and white human checkerboard, the ceremonies for John Ward & Ray Mears, and senior night for CJ Watson, Stanley Asumnu, and Andre Patterson. And the Vols did everything right for 60-70% of the game, before wearing down and letting Rajon Rondo go playground style on them, and Kentucky got away, again. The season was still special, the team was still great, but the Vols misfired on the night when a win would've mattered the most.

One year later, Phillip Fulmer, Peyton Manning (who doesn't feel right unless he knows Jeff Saturday is around), and 24,000 others are on hand. It's Dane Bradshaw's night, and Dane Bradshaw's night alone among seniors, and this is a unique player to begin with, fully deserving of all the appreciation ("The only thing he's done wrong is he hasn't proposed to my daughter. Yet." - Bruce Pearl) The story of Pat Summitt and her cheerleading assistant coaches was going to make more noise than the actual game, win or lose. But once again, all the pieces were in place. Win or lose, the team was still going to be good, the season was still going to be special. But if you could ever pick one night to put Tennessee Basketball on display - and Dickie V and ESPN were there to show every moment of it - this was that night. If there was ever one night you didn't want to disappoint, this was that night.

And not only did the Vols not disappoint, they throttled the best team in the SEC.

I know Florida made a 21-4 run in the second half and cut the lead to 8. But if eight points is as close as they got, then this was abuse. These sorts of things just don't happen...but if they do happen, they only happen on nights like this.

The University of Tennessee is pretty good at almost every sport they play, men and women. We've got exceptional, nationally competitive programs in softball, soccer, track & field, swimming, tennis, pretty much you name it, we do it well. We do women's basketball better than anyone else in the history of women's basketball. Even though our baseball team has struggled in the midst of high expectations both last year and the first few weeks of this season, we've more than held our own there in the last 10 years. In many ways, this blog exists because of our football team, which is the lowest of thousands of endorsements you could give Tennessee Football.

But basketball was always the stepchild. After Ernie & Bernie, there was the great orange void. We weren't usually competitive in basketball throughout the 1990s, and even in spurts over the last few years, that's all it was. If you said "Tennessee Basketball" to someone on the street two years ago who was too young to really know about Ernie & Bernie, after you clarified that you weren't talking about the Lady Vols, what would someone say? Allan Houston? Probably, for many people, not even that.

We had no face. We had no presence. Even in Jerry Green's tenure, with a couple of really, really good basketball teams, you can excuse that the same way that more than 3/4 of the teams in the SEC have had a run of 2-3 really good years in basketball in the last decade. We were one of those rare universities that was good at everything else, the standard of excellence in women's basketball and a five-star elite program in football. We were one basketball team short of being one of the ten best athletic institutions in the entire United States.

In a little less than two years, Bruce Pearl has changed the entire game.

Even if the Vols lose at Georgia on Saturday, flame out in the SEC Tournament, and get upended on opening weekend in March Madness, it won't kill this. Tennessee Basketball now has a face. And it's not just an eccentric coach with a flair for television cameras and great quotes. It's a basketball coach who can flat coach. It's a basketball coach who made miracles flow from his fingertips last year. It's a coach who, even though he warned us that 2006-07 would be like another first year with all these freshmen and no Major Wingate, has proven that there's no room for the word "fluke" and "Bruce Pearl" in the same vocabulary. He's real. It's real.

Bruce Pearl has proved, in two years, that's he worthy of sitting at the adult table with Phillip Fulmer and Pat Summitt. He's not inferior to them in the least. Not in any way. And because of the strengths of the University of Tennessee and our athletic department...he may not ever want to leave.

If Pearl sticks around and this keeps up, the University of Tennessee will become - if it isn't right now - one of the premier athletic institutions in America. We're good at everything we do. We've got great ambassadors - starting with Peyton Manning, who's almost too good to be true, but also including a slew of Lady Vols, Todd Helton, the late Reggie White, and now that circle moves closer to completion with the recent inclusion of Bernard King back into the family fold. You can put this university's athletic programs up against anyone else in the country, and we will hold our own every time.

For now, the basketball team remains on center stage. Both of them, actually. The Lady Vols will have another great shot at winning a title. And the men now stand at 21-9, 9-6 in the SEC with a chance to finish 3rd in the East by winning on Saturday in Athens. And this team looks built to win in March. Every time I hear some analyst say "The Dance is all about guard play", it makes me happy.

Tennessee Basketball had its chance on Tuesday night to take that step. A loss wouldn't have killed it. But a win - and not just any win, but a "Tennessee's winning by how much?!" beatdown of what's considered to be the best program in the conference right now - in front of that audience, on that night, in that may not have been perfect, but it was good. It was very good.

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