Hoop Vols' next step

A University of Tennessee basketball program pegged to finish fifth in the SEC during preseason wound up winning its division and placing second overall. But that doesn't begin to summarize the accomplishments of Bruce Pearl's first year on the job.

The 2005-06 Vols won 22 games, eight more than the year before. They beat eventual national champion Florida twice. They went 6-2 in SEC road games, UT's best mark since the Ernie & Bernie era. They packed Thompson-Boling Arena on a regular basis. They made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years and earned a No. 2 seeding, highest in program history.

No matter what measuring stick you use, it was a remarkable year. But now it's gone, and the Big Orange is faced with a new challenge: What's the next step for these Vols?

"They haven't had success here in quite some time and been able to sustain that success," assistant coach Jason Shay says. "Now the challenge is for them to understand that last year is over.

"We're got more of a target on our backs now because we won the East and we went to the NCAA Tournament. When you're on top, it's harder to maintain than it is to get to the top."

A lot of sweat, a lot of bruises, a lot of early morning weight-lifting and a lot of taxing practice laid the foundation for Tennessee's success in 2005-06. The hard work bonded the Vols into a close-knit unit with tremendous team chemistry.

Three seniors are gone from that team, however, and five freshmen (plus two redshirts) are joining the mix. The task is obvious: The returning veterans must instruct the rookies and incorporate them into a new team chemistry.

"The guys worked hard but now they've got to go to another level … work even harder than they did in the past just to maintain where we were last year," Shay says. "And they've got to show these freshmen the way. They can't allow a freshman to come in and cut corners. They've got to set the example.

"That's where we've got to go."

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