- They posted 20 victories in their first 22 games, a program record.
- They achieved the program's first-ever No. 1 ranking.
- They won an outright SEC title for the first time in 41 years.
- They won 31 games, shattering the old program record of 26.
- They reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 for a second consecutive year, another program first.
Advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history would've been icing on the cake but the loss to Louisville means the hardcore fans must settle for an un-iced cake this offseason. They shouldn't expect a whole lot of sympathy from those of us who remember the lean years ... when there was no cake at all.
I remember watching Wade Houston's 1990-91 Vols go 3-15 in SEC play. I remember watching his 1992-93 team lose 101-40 to Kentucky. I remember seeing his 1993-94 team go 5-22 overall and 2-14 in conference action. I've seen pickup teams play better basketball than that bunch did.
I remember watching Kevin O'Neill's teams score fewer points in a game than Bruce Pearl's teams score in an average half. There was an 11-day stretch in O'Neill's final season (1996-97) that saw the Vols suffer a 74-40 loss at Kentucky, a 73-41 loss at South Carolina and a 43-35 loss at Auburn. Watching O'Neill's teams play was downright brutal.
I remember watching Jerry Green's talented teams underachieve at tourney time. I remember an 82-81 loss to Illinois State in Round 1 of the 1999 NCAA Tournament. I remember watching the Vols lay down in an 81-51 second-round loss to Southwest Missouri State in 2000. I remember seeing them choke in the final minutes of a 74-69 loss to North Carolina in the 2001 Sweet 16, then suffer a 70-63 first-round loss to unheralded Charlotte in 2002.
I remember watching four years of Buzz Ball produce 61 wins, 59 losses and not so much as a sniff of NCAA Tournament play.
When you've witnessed as much bad basketball as I have, you develop a greater appreciation for good basketball. If someone had told me after the Big Orange went 5-22 in '93-94 that Tennessee would go 31-5 in 2007-08 – and Vol fans would be disappointed – I would've assumed a too-tight strait jacket was cutting off oxygen to his brain.
The fact a portion of the Vol Nation feels unfulfilled after a 31-win season is a credit to Pearl. In raising the bar, he has raised expectations to unprecedented levels. He has won more games (77) in his first three years than any coach in program history has won in any three-year interval.
His 2006 team made the NCAA Tournament after a four-year absence. His 2007 team made the Sweet 16. His 2008 team made history. Now it IS history. The program, however, lives on.
Even if Tyler Smith declares for the NBA Draft, Tennessee should have another exciting team in 2008-09. Wayne Chism is a budding superstar. Brian Williams, still in his basketball infancy, has exciting potential. Cameron Tatum, who redshirted this year, is going to be special. The Vols also have an assortment of solid role players. Basically, they are a 3-point shooter and a dependable point guard away from launching another run at the Final Four in 2008-09.
Tennessee made a lot of history this year. It should make a lot more in the years to come.