Strange: A spectacular blastoff for Vols, Arena

It was either after the 15th floor-length pass for a layup or the 11th lob that got dunked that I thought I was at the Rocky Top Summer League.

One look around, though, brought me back to reality Friday night.

This definitely wasn't the Bearden High School gym.

And it didn't look like Thompson-Boling Arena, either, at least not the arena as we knew it for 20 years.

"It's spectacular by any standard,'' said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, "by any standard.''

Pearl was describing the new and improved Thompson-Boling Arena. The $19 million facelift was unveiled for the Vols' rip-and-run, 106-46 exhibition victory over California University of Pennsylvania.

And it was, indeed, pretty spectacular.

So much so that Pearl was concerned the venue would outshine the product, his third Tennessee basketball team, which he felt hadn't been practicing especially well.

His concerns were ill-founded. The team presented itself well, too.

Never mind the Division II competition, or the fact that Wayne Chism, Duke Crews and J.P. Prince were in street clothes. There was a lot to like, not the least of which being the play of the three newcomers: Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams.

I moved through a crowd announced at 19,780 before and after the game. Never was heard a discouraging word.

There's enough orange trim to highlight the new black seats. The luxury suites and loge seats lend a more intimate feel. Bill New, who's been coming to UT basketball since the 1960s, was grateful for the Plexiglass ringing the upper deck. No more peeking through or around the old metal guardrails.

"It's great,'' said junior Ryan Childress. "The different lighting gives it more of a Gardens feel.''

As in Madison Square.

And the scoreboard. If you remember when the alien mothership landed at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," that's what came to mind.

"I've been stopped every four or five feet along the way tonight by ushers, staff or season ticket-holders making comments,'' said athletic director Mike Hamilton. "Absolutely all in a positive way.''

That pretty much goes for the team that plays in the arena, too. The Vols open ranked No. 7 in both major polls.

"It means respect,'' said Childress. "I'm not sure we deserve it yet, but it's a testament to what we did last year.''

Seventh is the highest preseason ranking in school history. It's also unfamiliar territory. This is only the fourth UT squad since the arena opened in 1987-88 to begin a season ranked, only the ninth in school history.

This is also the first UT team to begin a season in astate-of-the-art practice facility, adjacent to the spiffed-up arena.

Both projects are concrete (and steel) evidence of the hope Pearl has incited since he arrived 2 1/2 years ago.

Tennessee basketball - men's basketball - is relevant again. If you don't believe me, read the glowing account in Sports Illustrated last month.

As flattering as the attention is for the program and the school, Pearl isn't in March Madness mode yet. And doesn't want his team to be, either.

"I'm not big on early-season hoopla,'' he said.

"I told the team, wherever we're at today, let's try to be a team that improves more throughout the season than any team in the country.''

A laudable quest, yet one that has eluded so many UT squads over the years.

But Friday night, with all those athletes running, diving on the floor and making baskets from every angle, christening their spectacular new surroundings, anything seemed possible.

Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or strange2@knews.com.

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Comments » 9

mikeinknoxville writes:

Good to see the team play well especially Tatum and Williams. The depth of the team is what should make a difference down the stretch. We will be able to wear most teams down by rotating 11 players. Some school records may fall this year

BigUn writes:

I think UT fans have fallen in love w/Pearl and UT basketball not just because of the wins, but because of the hustle and enthusiasm that the players play with and the coaches coach with.

I truly believe this does hurt Fulmer as far as his perception with fans goes because of his "take everything in stride and whatever you do, don't get excited and jump around and start slapping high fives because that's only for teams that are beating us by 3 or 4 TD's, just get up, go back to the huddle and be quiet" attitude he seems to have instilled in past football teams seems to have sucked any and all enthusiasm and excitement out of the program.

I love Coach Pearl and what he has built here at UT and I hope he stays until he retires.

C123456 writes:

I was not happy when the black seats were announced, but after last night, I like them. Between the black seats and the monster board, TBA feels much less like a cavern. It will never have the intimacy of Stokely, but this was definitely a good change. After 20 years in the same seats, the cushioned seats are a definite improvement over the old ones.

I was disappointed that there weren't more items hanging in the concourse. Hopefully, they aren't finished with it. If they are, well, that was a step in the wrong direction, IMO.

Tatum showed some flashes of brilliance, and I was impressed by Williams' hands. The future really looks bright if the 3 newcomers progress.

The free 4x7 black, magnetic schedules were a nice touch.

C123456 writes:

Plasticman, 19,000+ was the official attendance, which includes all season tickets, regardless of whether they were actually there. Still, I'd guess that 15,000+ were there. That's more than many SEC games a few years ago. It was definitely one of the best season-opening turnouts since the arena opened.

Hunter writes:

Codeman, my understanding is that the concourses are "Phase 2" renovations after this season. Wish I could have been there last night - I will make it sometime during SEC schedule.

alfrizzle097 writes:

Makes since Codeman. The stadium seats somewhere between 21 and 22 thousand now. I saw at least 5000 empty seats. Still, it was only an exhibition game.

murrayvol writes:

Great way to start (sort of) the season but let's not dwell on the comparison to Madison Square Garden. That's where the NIT holds forth and we want no part of that.

skroutyboy writes:

Airforceone, that is always the case--you have two attendance numbers: tickets sold and turnstile count. In the past, we would promote the tickets sold number and not mention the turnstile count, because of all of the no-shows. Also, please remember this, when "official attendance" is announced, it includes everyone, from the players to the concession workers to the media, etc. Everyone is counted.

BornaVolDieaVol writes:

WE MUST PROTECT OUR HOUSE!!!!!! and I think we will. 16 game winning streak and counting at home. Let's hope the streak is still going this time next year.

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