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VOL. 43 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 8, 2019

No. 1 NCAA seed within reach for Vols

No. 5 Tennessee shows value of playing as a team

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Dane Bradshaw normally views Tennessee basketball games with a tinge of regret. He often recalls his years playing for the Vols and the victories that eluded them.

But Bradshaw’s perspective has changed this season.

“I have never felt less jealous for a team because this is such an easy team to root for,” says Bradshaw, who played at UT from 2003-07 and is now a SEC Network analyst.

“The flashbacks aren’t as tough watching this team because I believe this is the most likable team I’ve ever seen at Tennessee. Just top to bottom on that roster, every player is someone fans enjoy rooting for.”

An old-school veteran squad built with more of a midmajor vibe, Tennessee is in the midst of one of the most successful seasons in program history.

The national title contenders have been ranked in the Top 10 the entire season, spending four weeks at No. 1. Their 11-0 start in the SEC was the best in program history, and they had a program-best 19-game win streak.

Positioned to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, Tennessee begins postseason play in Nashville for the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena. The single-elimination tournament runs March 13-17. The championship is noon Sunday.

Tennessee’s new pregame tradition, started this season, features one player chosen to close warmups with a dunk. All players jump with the dunker, then huddle and sprint off the court.

-- Photo By Jerry Denham |The Ledger

“I think they are a Final Four team,’’ says ESPN reporter Laura Rutledge. “Obviously they have to stay healthy and a few things need to go their way. But I think they are truly dangerous in the tournament because of their veteran guys and their ability to almost be a chameleon team.

“They can change the way they play based on the opponent and still have success,’’ she adds. “They are not married to one style of play, which I think benefits you in tournament play.”

Tennessee’s roster makeup is a product of calculated recruiting, which places a value on character as much as skill.

To lay the foundation for the program, UT head coach Rick Barnes and his staff weren’t obsessed by the number of stars attached to a player’s name in recruiting rankings.

The Vols don’t have a top 100 recruit on their roster. Stars Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield were both 3-star recruits coming out of high school.

Grant Williams pressures Vanderbilt’s Yanni Wetzell during the Vols’ 58-46 win in Knoxville. UT swept the season series.

-- Photo By Jerry Denham |The Ledger

Tennessee’s coaches have emphasized player development and finding the right pieces to make the sum greater than its parts.

“The environment Rick Barnes has fostered and the way he’s built this program is to succeed in the long term,” ESPN analyst Sean Farnham explains.

“He was not building to succeed short term or rush something with a one-and-done top 100 recruit or a quick fix. That is not sustainable and he’s created something sustainable.”

Rutledge has received an inside look at the Vols this season while covering several of their games. She’s at a loss for a comparison.

“The Tennessee huddles are different than any other team I’ve really ever seen in college basketball over the last five to seven years I’ve been on the sideline,” she points out.

“They have so much empowerment as players, and they are almost coaching each other and telling coaches specifically what they are seeing out there. They have an incredible level of respect and accountability on both sides.”

Bradshaw says he loves how the Vols embrace each opportunity to play, and how they have remained relatable despite their success.

“They approach the game with the discipline of professionals, but with the passion of a young kid that just loves playing basketball. I think you see that on the court,” Bradshaw says.

“They definitely take on the identity of Rick Barnes. He is guy that takes business seriously, but doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

Barnes is one of several coaches who have recently entered the SEC and helped lift the conference to more national prestige.

It’s no longer just Kentucky that is a viable threat, and the depth of competition rivals many of the conference’s other sports.

“Men’s basketball was behind the times until a few years ago when they started to upgrade facilities and get proven commodities as head coaches,” Farnham says.

“Because they have invested in coaches, the players started to come and subsequently this year two teams are quality enough to win the national championship in Tennessee and Kentucky, and LSU is good enough to make a run to the Sweet 16 or even the Elite Eight.”

After rising to No. 1 in the nation, Tennessee endured a bit of adversity competing against the other upper-echelon SEC teams.

The bumpy stretch revealed some deficiencies that may benefit the Vols during the one-and-done nature of postseason play. It also allowed them to return to the essence of what fueled their rise in the first place.

“They have this collective chip on their shoulder. They almost have this anger about them and they don’t apologize about that,” Rutledge continues. “That is a big part of their identity, and that anger and intensity on the court most of the time leads to wins.”

One year after being upset by NCAA tournament darling Loyola-Chicago in the second round, the Vols are poised to stick around much longer this season.

The Tennessee fans have become enamored with this season’s team, and they have flocked to games in record numbers. The emotional investment for men’s basketball is at a deeper level than many can ever remember on Rocky Top.

“Regardless of what happens in the postseason, my position would not change that this is the best and most likable team at Tennessee that I have seen during my time,” Bradshaw says.

“March Madness has a way of determining those things. But big picture, that is the way they will be remembered.”

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