Vols hit the poll

In the span of eight months, Tennessee has gone from being a rank basketball program to being a RANKED basketball program.

Three days after surprising No. 6 Texas 95-78 in Austin, the Vols got a surprise of their own Monday, learning they're ranked No. 23 in the latest Associated Press national poll. That represents quite a turnaround for a team that went 14-17 last winter.

This is the first time Tennessee has held a national ranking since the 2000-01 season. The Vols achieved a program-best No. 4 ranking that season when Jerry Green's final team raced to a 16-1 start. Then they dropped eight of their next 10 games and slipped out of the top 25, never to return.

Until now.

Tennessee's ranking is based in large part on last Saturday's defeat of Texas. That upset victory capped a 6-0 start that constitutes the program's best beginning since the afore-mentioned 2000-01 Vols won their first nine games. That team also beat one ranked foe along the way, dumping No. 18 Wisconsin 66-56 in Knoxville.

Assuming a program last March that had gone 61-59 with zero NCAA Tournament bids in four years under Buzz Peterson, new coach Bruce Pearl said it was important to expect more from Vol basketball. Now it appears he got his wish.

"I just didn't expect the expectations to start this soon," he deadpanned.

Regardless, Tennessee will discover how it feels to be the hunted, instead of the hunter, when the Vols take on Oklahoma State Thursday at Oklahoma City in the All-College Basketball Classic. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. EST. Oklahoma and West Virginia meet in Game 2 of the doubleheader, with both games being televised by ESPN2.

"There's a big bull's-eye on our back right now, for sure," Pearl said. "I don't think we're the 23rd-best team in the country, and I don't know whether we deserve the ranking."

Only time will tell.

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