The Thompson-Boling experience
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The marquee has been in place since Monday when Tennessee ascended to second behind unbeaten Memphis in college basketball's national rankings. But No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 2 UT still has shock value from this vantage point.
It even looks funny when I write it, as though numbers or letters are amiss. The national rankings have the same effect. How can you resist a double-take when you see Tennessee positioned above third-ranked North Carolina, fourth-ranked Kansas, fifth-ranked Duke and sixth-ranked UCLA?
UCLA has played in 17 Final Fours; North Carolina, 16; Duke, 14; and Kansas, 12.
UT has made it to the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Twice.
For fans still dizzied by UT's basketball ascent into the rarified air of basketball's elite, their team is a steadying influence.
UT basketball history isn't relevant to most of these players. Only the seniors have suffered through a losing season. Since then, they have experienced nothing but an exhilarating climb up college basketball's ladder.
Six games into coach Bruce Pearl's first season at UT, his team beat the sixth-ranked Texas Longhorns by 17 points on their home floor. Two months later, they defeated 11th-ranked Kentucky in Lexington. And two weeks after that, they knocked off national-champion-to-be Florida in Gainesville.
Last year's team made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, upset another national championship Florida team, and lost two games by a total of three points to national runner-up Ohio State. That's what UT basketball history means to this team, which couldn't be more comfortable with what qualifies as sudden success to outsiders.
You were reminded of that in an 89-70 victory over Auburn on Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
UT easily could have been distracted by the national spotlight, which was shining brightly in the distance. Instead, it dispatched a lesser opponent with the expertise and experience of a basketball blueblood. North Carolina couldn't have done it better.
The spotlight is in UT's face now. So is school history.
If the Vols beat Memphis, they surely would be No. 1 in the country. Imagine that.
I can't write that without thinking of legendary UT coach Ray Mears, who died last summer. I wish he could be sitting behind UT's bench tonight, sporting his orange blazer and distinctive smile.
Pearl has taken UT basketball where Mears wanted it to go, and where he might have taken it himself if illness hadn't ended his career 30 years ago when he was still in his coaching prime.
Longtime UT basketball fans can appreciate that. They also can appreciate the similarities between two coaches separated by decades but connected by their passion for a game that both have promoted as well as coached.
Mears loved big, hostile arenas almost as much as he loved Big Orange Country. Pearl has an affinity for the same adversarial atmosphere.
But the lure of a big game apparently never intruded on Mears' routine.
Former UT basketball star A.W. Davis played for Mears in the early 1960s and also worked for him as an assistant. Twice during that time, the Vols upset No. 1-ranked teams.
I wondered what Mears was like before those games.
"He was the same as he always was," Davis said Wednesday night.
Pearl addressed the same issue after the Auburn game, pointing out that his approach doesn't rise and fall with the ranking of his opponent. News Sentinel sportswriter Mike Griffith, who accompanied the team on its European trip last summer, can verify that's not just "coach speak." Griffith marveled at how Pearl coached a series of exhibition games with NCAA tournament intensity.
Never mind how consistent the preparation has been. Pearl's teams have a track record for elevating their game when the competition demands it.
Tonight's competition is unbeaten, but that doesn't make it unbeatable.
The Vols have proved they can beat No. 1 teams. Now is their chance to become one.
If they pull it off, I would like to think Coach Mears had a good view.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.