No. 1 is No Wonder

Today, Feb. 25, 2008, let it be duly noted that the Tennessee Volunteers — not the Lady Vols mind you — found themselves atop the college basketball world despite the fact the sun didn't rise in the west, the Mighty Mississippi didn't flow backwards and Hell didn't freeze over.

Actually, I haven't been able to verify that last pronouncement. However there are said to still be anguished echoes filtering up through the nether regions of killer clown John Wayne Gacy begging for ice water and aloe.

No, it didn't require divine intervention for the Vols to reach a pinnacle once thought impossible. No need for a miracle ala the ‘69 Mets or the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's upset of the Soviet Union. Neither was there a natural disaster like the one that halted the 1989 World Series in its tracks; no flunky Flutie fling forestalling Hurricanes' wrath.

No sir, Tennessee's ascent to the top run, though precipitous and ingenious, has been a righteous by-the-numbers, by-the-book, blue-collar, lunch-bucket, hammer-and-rivets effort by talented players that play team-first basketball with the passion, poise and purpose mantra espoused by their head coach, motivator and game-day general Bruce Pearl.

In so many respects the rise of the team reflects the course charted by its coach, who labored a combined two decades in the minor leagues of college basketball and and as a D-I assistant. He also excelled in those roles although it didn't pay off in terms of opportunity for advancement until Milwaukee-Wisconsin took a chance on him seven years ago.

Pearl learned his lessons well and applied them with conviction. He devised and refined a system, designed and perfected a plan. Then he promoted it with the flair of the late, great Ray Mears a iconic coach who coined the phrase Big Orange Country. By honoring Mears and former Vol stars Pearl has managed to merge the Tennessee traditional past with the promise of Tennessee basketball future to instill pride and hope in a fan base that had neither. He lit a torch in the hardwood wilderness that largely defines the last two decades and has spanned six head coaches.

As the sixth in this series he was the first to recognize the Lady Vols and legendary head coach Pat Summitt as an asset to be utilized instead of obstacles to be overcome. He understood success begets success and that a close association as well as long-term exposure to basketball excellence breeds basketball excellence.

Ultimately, he practiced that very "higher purpose" he preached by aspiring not only to win but to attract fans back to Thompson-Boling Arena and energize them by offering an entertaining brand of basketball that is played with rock-solid fundamentals

In the process, he put out a product that players and fans loved, and the media loved to cover. He armed it with weapons and fueled it with passion. In short: Tennessee basketball wasn't rebuilt as much as it was reborn.

Recently a fellow scribe, who covers a different SEC team but occasionally calls to compare notes, asked me to describe Tennessee basketball as played under Pearl in a single word. The best I could come up with off the cuff was to call it Volcanic. It's based on the principles of intense pressure building to the point of explosion. Even when its dormant it's dangerous because each second it's that much closer to erupting in an outpouring of defensive heat, turnovers and transition baskets.

Tennessee basket has become an intimidating presence for opponents. It can erupt at any moment from any point on the floor in a flow of pace and space that leaves foes coughing, wheezing and gasping for breath.

Reaching the No. 1 spot is just as important for the Vols as keeping it because it's something they've achieved that can't be taken away. The slate is wiped clean after the brackets are set and the victory over Memphis positions UT for a No. 1 seed. Of course, an outright SEC title would assure it and is therefore priority one.

That quest is rejoined Tuesday in Nashville against arch rival and No. 16 ranked Vanderbilt. A physical and emotional letdown can be expected which combined with playing at what might be the toughest venue in the SEC could very well translate into a one week reign at No. 1. Still this UT team has proven itself capable of accomplishing the unexpected. It is built for the long haul and, despite its success, still has room for improvement. A quick recovery from making history would bode well for its emotional makeup to say nothing of its NCAA chances.

Tennessee's magical basketball campaign isn't the product of smoke and mirrors, it's the result of hunger, heart and hard work — passion, poise and purpose.

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