UT rises from the ashes

Four years ago, Tennessee's 2004-05 basketball team was three wins from earning a bid to the NIT. This year, the 2007-08 team is one win from earning a No. 1 national ranking and, perhaps, a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

Who woulda thunk it?

Certainly not Vol seniors Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, who were freshmen on an '04-05 team that finished 14-17 in Buzz Peterson's swan song. They spent that March watching the NCAA Tournament on TV and wondering who their new coach would be.

Lofton readily admits that, as a freshman, he would've laughed at anyone brazen enough to suggest the Big Orange was just four years away from being 24-2, closing in on the program's first outright SEC title in 41 years and needing only to beat top-ranked Memphis Saturday night to ascend to No. 1 in the nation.

"I wouldn't have believed ‘em back then," he said, grinning broadly. "Times have changed. It's been a great three years for me … a great FOUR years."

Smith, who has started at the guard spot opposite Lofton the past three years, is just as amazed by the awful-to-awesome transformation Big Orange basketball has made during the course of their college careers.

"We dreamed about it, talked about it, laughed about it ... never thought it would happen, "Smith said with a laugh. "It's a dream come true, and we're ready to step up and try to make history with this group."

Actually, this group already has made history several times. It was the first Vol team ever to ascend to No. 2 in the national polls and No. 1 in RPI. It was the fastest Vol team to reach the 20-win plateau. It was the first Vol team ever to prevail in 24 of its first 26 games. If it wins Saturday night's game at FedEx Forum it will be the first Vol team ever to earn the top spot in all of college basketball.

Given all that Tennessee's players have achieved – and all that's at stake this weekend – you wonder: Could the Vols be a little too pumped?

"There's no such thing as being over-pumped up," Smith said with a shake of his head. "We deserve to be in this position. We're going to try to make the most out of it and show everyone we belong here."

For a program barely visible on the college basketball landscape four years ago, Tennessee seems remarkably comfortable with the lofty status it currently enjoys. If the Vols are nervous about facing Memphis in the most heralded game of the 2007-08 college basketball season, they certainly don't show it.

"Why would we be nervous?" Smith said, clearly incredulous. "We've split the last two years (losing 88-79 at Memphis in 2006, winning 76-58 at Knoxville in 2007). We're 1-1, so it's an even series. We're going to try and break this series, and hopefully we'll come out on top."

Lofton, who gives new meaning to the term "soft-spoken," says the key to beating Memphis is the same as the key to beating anyone else on Tennessee's schedule.

"We've just got to buckle down on defense and rebound," he said. "We can't give them second shots and opportunities. And we've got to slow their fast break down."

The keys may be the same but beating Memphis Saturday night on its home floor will be a much bigger challenge than beating Auburn Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena proved to be. Lofton concedes as much.

"We need everybody to be at their best," he said. "It's a game where everybody has to contribute. That's what we're looking forward to."

Perhaps that's what Vol head coach Bruce Pearl meant earlier this week when he said this is "step-up time" for Tennessee. Smith has his own interpretation, however.

"Some folks play to the level of their competition," he said. "This game is the highest competition we're going to see all year, so I think everyone's going to step up to the level of the competition."

Considering how much the Vols "stepped up" between 2004-05 and 2007-08, what's one more step?

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