As the Rick Barnes era approaches the midway point of his second year at the helm of the Tennessee Volunteers basketball program, many have questioned the excitement level of the loyal fanbase in Knoxville and around the state.
This youthful version of the Vols contains eight new scholarship players and expectations were near rock bottom as the Big Orange was picked next to last in the preseason Southeastern Conference standings by the media. After the 86-76 loss to No. 8 Gonzaga, the Vols sit at 6-5 but from the look of the crowd in downtown Nashville on Sunday, the fans in Middle Tennessee see reason to support and be excited about the direction of their team.
Tennessee has four close losses to highly ranked teams but were unable to get over the hump against national powers Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin. Even though the wins haven't come yet there is something about this team that has the fans' attention. Many of those surrounding the program were worried about what kind of crowd might show up at Bridgestone Arena as ticket sales were reportedly slow but 13,784 strong were in attendance on a cold afternoon.
Many of the longtime followers of Vols basketball have felt that fan interest is currently at a pathetic level. The mid-state faction of Big Orange Country proved that line of thinking wrong.
Few would deny that the Bruce Pearl era was full of fan excitement. Pearl wanted to play yearly in the Music City outside of the annual visit to Vanderbilt. He was a trailblazer in making this type game happen on multiple occasions.
The interesting part of those games with Pearl as the head coach was fans didn't support them nearly as much as they did this contest the matchup with Gonzaga. Many recall one of the first of these games as an instant classic versus Oklahoma State in December 2006. The Vols won a thriller that day 79-77 but only 8,118 showed up.
A year later the approach was different to generate an audience that didn't resemble an empty building. Tennessee teamed with Middle Tennessee State and Memphis, scheduling a doubleheader where the Blue Raiders and the Tigers were the opening act with the Vols taking on the Hilltoppers from Western Kentucky in the second half. It was a success as 18,071 came out. However it is hard to ignore the makeup of that crowd was of four different fanbases within an easy driving distance of Nashville.
In 2008, the Vols went back to the single game approach but again the attendance was far from desirable. Tennessee played Marquette in front of 9,498.
Some will point to ticket prices as a reason the 2016 Battle of Broadway was an attendance success but the fact is this was by far the most expensive ticket for purchase. Lower level seats where $40 and with Ticketmaster fees fans paid well over $50 for a single lower-level seat. In comparison the tickets in 2007 were cheaper with $30 while the 2006 prices were even lower.
Big Orange fans in Middle Tennessee have proven they are a worthy host for more of these games and the locals are much more excited about Rick Barnes and this youthful bunch than anyone expected before Sunday.