It's hard to argue with either camp but I'm going to. I'm convinced the greatest Vol squad of the 21st century was the 2006-07 team, even though it lost 11 games and finished the regular season tied for second place in the SEC East.
Why? Because basketball is a game of matchups, and that '06-07 squad was a ridiculously difficult matchup. Ask THE Ohio State University, which boasted the game's most dominating player (6-foot-11 Greg Oden, picked No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft that June). The Buckeyes wound up reaching the Final Four title game that season, yet they were lucky to beat Tennessee 68-66 in a January meeting at Columbus and even luckier to prevail 85-84 in a Sweet 16 rematch at San Antonio.
The 2006-07 Vols lacked size but they were a pesky bunch that disrupted opponents with a world-class fullcourt press. Freshmen Wayne Chism (6-feet-8) and Duke Crews (6-feet-7) provided a very athletic 1-2 punch at center. Chism also had the ability to step outside and drain 3-pointers, as did 6-foot-9 reserve Ryan Childress.
Head coach Bruce Pearl showed his creativity by inventing a hybrid position for 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior Dane Bradshaw. A former point guard, he used remarkable savvy and brilliant passing skills to define what came to be known as the "point forward" position. He actually led the Vols in assists (4.7 per game) that season, despite spending much of his time near the basket. Basically, Bradshaw was too quick for the big guys he faced, too strong for the small guys he faced and too smart for almost everyone he faced. As a result, he proved to be a very difficult matchup.
|Dane Bradshaw played a number of roles during his time as a Vol.|
|(Danny Parker/Shelbyville Times-Gazette)|
Another Smith, freshman Ramar, was another tough "cover" for the 2006-07 Vols. The 6-foot-2 freshman seemingly could get to the rim any time he wanted. His struggles in adjusting from high school shooting guard to college point guard accounted for many of Tennessee's 11 losses that season. When he found his rhythm in mid-February, however, so did the team.
Tennessee won nine of its final 12 games that season, with the victims including No. 23 Vanderbilt, No. 20 Kentucky, No. 25 Alabama and No. 5 Florida. When the Big Orange spanked the Gators 86-76, I honestly believed the fast-improving Vols were about to win the first national championship in program history. I felt the problems they created with their fullcourt press, their 3-point shooting and their scrappy, undersized lineup would make them a matchup nightmare for anyone they faced.
That opinion grew stronger when Tennessee annihilated Long Beach State 121-86 in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament. It grew stronger still when the Vols raced to a 49-32 halftime lead against top-ranked Ohio State in the Sweet 16. The Buckeyes rallied, however, and won in dramatic fashion when Oden blocked a potential game-winning layup by Ramar Smith at the buzzer.
That Ohio State team went on to reach the national championship game before losing to Florida. Ultimately, the national runnerup was a Buckeye squad that beat Tennessee by one point and the national champ was a Gator squad that Tennessee beat by 10 points four weeks earlier.
And that's why, in my mind, the 2006-07 team ranks as the best Vol basketball team of this century.