``I said that it's a college town and if you could get this thing winning, you'd be the center of attention and we could have sellouts all the time,'' said junior guard-forward Dane Bradshaw.
Bradshaw has been a prophet. This season, Tennessee has had three crowds of over 21,000. Last year, the average student turnout for a game was 575. In two SEC home games, the average student count is over 4,500. The overall average attendance has climbed from 12,200 to 16,500.
Bradshaw said he wasn't surprised to see 24,011 cram into Thompson-Boling Arena for the Tennessee-Florida game.
``It's just a great college town,'' Bradshaw said. ``I've known all along if we could step the program up to the next level, the city would really embrace it. And the support has gone even higher.
``I speak for the team when I say how much we appreciate coach (Bruce) Pearl's job of getting into the community and bringing the fans out.''
Bradshaw said UT students prepared for the Florida game like it was a football game. He can expect more of the same. More than 18,000 tickets have been sold for the South Carolina game Saturday. The Vanderbilt game Feb. 1 should draw over 20,000.
``I think fans were starved to support a winner and I admire Mr. (Mike) Hamilton (athletic director) on making a great hire,'' Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw embodies what this team is all about. He hustles. He scraps. He dives for loose balls. He guards players 7 inches taller. He battles among the trees for rebounds.
He is a big reason UT fans have fallen in love with this team.
I said for almost two years I didn't think Bradshaw was an SEC player. I didn't think he handled the ball well enough to be a point guard, shot the ball well enough to be an off guard or was quick enough to guard on the perimeter.
For almost two years, I was right.
Now, I'm wrong. Blame Bradshaw. Blame Pearl.
In Bradshaw's first two seasons at UT, he averaged 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds. He shot 24 percent from 3-point range, 58 percent from the foul line, 41 percent overall from the field, and didn't have a favorable assist-turnover ratio for a guard (105-78).
This season, Bradshaw is averaging 7.4 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds. He is hitting 30 percent from 3-point land, 62 percent at the foul line, 43 percent overall and his assist-turnover ratio (69 to 23) leads the SEC. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds against the talented, fourth-ranked Memphis Tigers. He has had three games with double digits in points and rebounds.
Pearl told me before this season that Bradshaw would be a much improved 3-point shooter. Earlier this season, that didn't hold true. He had a six-game stretch in which he hit 2 of 14 treys. But in a recent four-game span, Bradshaw displayed a more accurate and confident stroke from beyond the arc, making 5 of 10 from outside.
I didn't see Bradshaw thriving in Pearl's uptempo, pressing style of play. He wasn't quick enough. And he wouldn't play much behind C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton.
I also didn't see Bradshaw playing power forward.
The move reminds me of what Dale Brown of LSU did some 20 years ago – moving 6-7 Ricky Blanton from small forward to center. Blanton was outsized but not outmuscled. Blanton played smart, boxed out and frustrated his opponents – much like Bradshaw is doing now.
Bradshaw is a great example of what smart coaching can do.
Bradshaw was asked when the team bought into Pearl.
``Day One,'' he said. ``He really hasn't changed since then. A lot of coaches will come in a certain way to try to win you over, and then change. But he is what he is. He's great at just getting the respect of his players.
``And the things coach Pearl and his staff have done are just amazing. A lot of times before a game when we're facing a tough opponent, as players we know our coaches will come up with a heckuva game plan.''
UT players have confidence in Pearl.
Pearl has confidence in his players.
That's a big reason the Vols are ranked in the top 20, atop in the SEC East Division and headed for their first NCAA Tournament berth in five years.