UT's best team ever?

Considering Tennessee's record, talent and coaching, is this the Vols' best basketball team ever?

That question was recently posed by John Pennington of the Hall's Salvage Sports Source television show in Knoxville.

At 21-2, Tennessee is off to its' best-ever start. The Vols are ranked No. 4 in the AP and Coaches' poll. They have the No. 1 RPI in the country. They lead the SEC in scoring, assists, turnover margin, steals, 3-pointers made and 3-point defense.

They need five victories to tie the school record for most wins in a season.

So, is this Tennessee's best-ever men's basketball team?

Not yet. It must still accomplish several feats to be considered the best.

Remember, the 2000-01 team started 16-1 and was ranked No. 4 in the country before finishing 6-10 and getting coach Jerry Green fired.

If you don't win the SEC regular season or the SEC Tournament or make a run to the Sweet 16, you can't be considered the best Tennessee team of all-time.

But to date, this is the best Tennessee team I've seen since I began covering the Vols in 1985.

That doesn't mean it's a complete team. It needs to improve its half-court offense, its inside scoring and its free-throw shooting. But it does so many other things well, it can overcome a few deficiencies.

And it's apparent Tennessee hasn't yet peaked. It has room for improvement. The return of Duke Crews fortified the rebounding concerns. The return of Chris Lofton's shooting stroke helped the half-court offense.

I'm not sure what can help the horrific foul shooting UT experienced during the LSU game – 4-of-15, including 0-for-5 in the second half. J.P. Prince shoots free throws worse than the Fresh Prince. And Wayne Chism has hit over 50 percent at the foul line in just five games. He's at 45 percent on the season. Three players in the 10-man rotation shoot less than 50 percent.

This is probably the deepest Tennessee team ever. It does not have the best starting lineup. That mantle belongs to Ray Mears' 1976-77 club.

That lineup: All-American Bernard King (25.8 points), All-American Ernie Grunfeld (22.8), sharp-shooter Mike Jackson (15.8), 6-10 freshman center Reggie Johnson (11.0) and point guard Johnny Darden (5.6 points). The sixth man: Terry Crosby, who averaged 19 points the next season.

King and Grunfeld each were voted SEC Player of the Year. Grunfeld was an Olympian. King was an All-Pro who led the NBA in scoring. He is arguably the best player in SEC history. Johnson played four years in the NBA and was clearly a better center than Duke Crews or Wayne Chism. And Jackson was in the same class as Chris Lofton as a shooter.

For my money, the 1976-77 team is the best one Tennessee has ever had. It went 16-2 in the SEC, beating Kentucky twice and losing only at Florida and at Georgia. It went 22-6, losing in overtime in the first-round of the NCAA tournament to an outstanding Syracuse team that was ranked 10th in the nation. UT was ranked No. 7.

Nowadays, if you're ranked No. 7, you don't draw a top 10 team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Here is my list of the top five men's teams:

1. 1976-77: UT's most talented team ever. It lost to Duke, No. 6 San Francisco, No. 8 UCLA, No. 10 Syracuse, and twice on the road in the SEC.

2. 1966-67: Mears brought UT its first SEC title in 25 years. It went 21-7, won the SEC with a 15-3 record, beat Kentucky twice and had SEC Player of the Year Ron Widby (22.1 points per game). Billy Justus, Tom Boerwinkle, Tom Hendrix and Bill Hann were the other starters.

3. 1999-2000: Not many people liked Jerry Green, but you can't ignore a team that set a school record for most wins in a season (26-7), tied for first in the SEC and reached the Sweet 16 – the first UT team to win two NCAA Tournament games. Starters were Vincent Yarbrough, Ron Slay, Isiah Victor, Tony Harris and Jon Higgins.

4. 1975-76: This is when King (25.2) was a sophomore and Grunfeld (25.3) a junior. Jackson (16.7) might be the most underrated UT player ever. This team went 21-6 and was second in the SEC at 14-4. It lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney to VMI when King wasn't able to play due to a thumb injury.

5. 2005-06: Bruce Pearl's first UT team. The overachieving Vols (22-8) beat eventual national champion Florida twice and won the East Division (12-4). They garnered the highest NCAA seed in program history – No. 2. The starters were Chris Lofton, C.J. Watson, Major Wingate, JaJuan Smith and Andre Patterson.

Pearl's second team is a close second. It won more games (24) and reached the Sweet 16, winning one more NCAA tournament game than the first team. But it didn't win the East Division and split two games with Florida.


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