No. 20 Tennessee welcomes its return to national spotlight
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee typically isn’t a very hospitable host to defending national champions.
A rare sellout crowd will try to make sure that pattern continues Sunday when No. 7 North Carolina faces the 20th-ranked Volunteers in Knoxville for the first time since 1949.
Tennessee has won each of the last five times it has hosted a defending national champion, a stretch that includes victories over Kentucky (in February 1999 and February 2013 ), Florida (February 2007 and February 2008) and Connecticut (January 2012 ).
Now that they’re back in the Top 25 for the first time in seven years , the Vols have a chance to make a statement that they’ve returned to national relevance. After making the NCAA Tournament six straight times under Bruce Pearl from 2006-11, Tennessee has been back just once in the six years since.
”We want to be a program that’s big on everybody’s schedule,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. ”We don’t want to be a program where Tennessee’s coming and (it’s) no big deal. We want people to know, hey, we have a good basketball program. We’re not there yet. We’re working to get there, but we’re not there yet.”
Tennessee is making positive steps in Barnes’ third season.
The Vols were picked before the season to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference , but they’ve gotten off to a fast start that includes a road win at Georgia Tech and neutral-site victories over No. 17 Purdue and North Carolina State . Their only loss of the season came when they squandered a 12-point halftime lead over No. 1 Villanova in the Battle 4 Atlantis .
Sunday’s game will attract the first capacity crowd at the 21,678-seat Thompson-Boling Arena since a February 2015 loss to Kentucky . It’s the first time two ranked men’s teams have faced each other in this building since No. 19 Tennessee defeated No. 2 Kentucky on Feb. 27, 2010.
The Vols get a chance to avenge one of their toughest losses from last season.
Tennessee visited Chapel Hill last year and led North Carolina by as many as 15 points before the Tar Heels rallied for a 73-71 victory . North Carolina played that game without point guard Joel Berry II due to a sprained left ankle.
”It stung, but that was last year,” Tennessee forward Grant Williams said. ”There are different guys on the team. They didn’t experience it, but some of us did. We’re just focusing on getting this win. Playing against North Carolina is always huge. It’s a blue blood team.”
Williams rooted for the Tar Heels while growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina. But he wasn’t offered by North Carolina and eventually chose Tennessee after considering Yale, Princeton and Richmond .
He now is Tennessee’s leading scorer and exemplifies how Barnes has built this program by developing under-the-radar prospects. Tennessee’s roster doesn’t include a single player who was rated as a top-125 prospect according to a composite ranking of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.
Tennessee still has found a way to produce occasional big moments under Barnes, particularly at home. The Vols have beaten Kentucky in Knoxville each of the last two years .
The next step is delivering those types of performances more consistently.
”If you beat Kentucky at home, why can’t you beat other people?” Barnes said. ”I don’t want a team that gets up for one game and that’s it. I want a team that every night, they’re going to go out and compete. There’s no doubt because of the tradition of Kentucky, North Carolina, Villanova, Michigan State, there’s a different buzz when those teams come to town because, you know what, they’ve been good for a long time. There’s no doubt that they’re the ones that bring the buzz.
”I want our program to get to that point sometime. We’re not there yet. Our goal’s to get there, but we have a lot of steps in between we’ve got to take.”
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