Tennessee basketball teams provide good news to angry fans
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Amid the chaos of Tennessee’s search for a football coach, comes good news for frustrated fans: basketball.
The Tennessee men’s team is back in the Top 25 for the first time since December 2010 and carries a No. 24 ranking into its Saturday home game with Lipscomb. The 11th-ranked Lady Vols host No. 2 Texas on Sunday in a matchup of unbeaten teams.
Now that the Vols finally found a football coach with the selection of Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee fans can focus on basketball. They’ll find a couple of programs that still aren’t satisfied with their early success.
”We want to be a program that’s ranked all the time – ranked higher,” Tennessee men’s coach Rick Barnes said. ”But to do that, you’ve got to earn that respect. You’ve got to earn it. I think where we are right now, we’ve done some good things, but if that (ranking) looks big to us, we won’t be there very long.”
The Tennessee men’s basketball program was dealing with its own instability before Barnes took over.
Barnes was Tennessee’s third coach in as many years when he arrived at Tennessee in 2015. Although Barnes’ teams had earned 19 NCAA Tournament invitations in the 20 seasons before his arrival, he has needed time to get the Vols playing the way he wants.
The breakthrough has come this year, thanks to an improved defense.
”The biggest difference is when you watch film with our team from last year and watch film from this year, we take so much pride on defense, stopping teams defensively,” junior forward Kyle Alexander said.
The Vols (6-1) have made these strides while attention around campus has been elsewhere. During a victory over Mercer last week, fans started chanting ”Fire Currie” a handful of times to express their anger over athletic director John Currie’s handling of the football coaching search. Currie was forced out two days later.
Through it all, the men’s and women’s basketball teams have kept winning.
”There were some tough things that happened,” said Barnes, who has grown accustomed to working at football-oriented schools as a former coach at Clemson and Texas and former assistant at Alabama and Ohio State.
”Now going forward, we’ve just got to move forward. Everybody does. When all that was going on, we just tried to do what we’d do regardless, whether it was normal or not normal. I give our guys credit for just really trying to stay focused on what we had to do.”
The fans are catching on. Tickets are already gone for Tennessee’s Dec. 17 game with No. 11 North Carolina, which represents the first sellout at the 21,678-seat Thompson-Boling Arena since a February 2015 loss to Kentucky.
While the Tennessee men are back in the Top 25 for the first time in seven years, the Lady Vols are used to lofty rankings. But the Lady Vols entered this season with more questions than usual after an inconsistent 2016-17 campaign that ended with a second-round NCAA Tournament exit.
Tennessee has looked much better so far this year, thanks to improved chemistry. With seniors Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared leading a roster that features four freshmen, the Lady Vols (9-0) have scored 100-plus points in consecutive games for the first time since 2001-02.
The Lady Vols’ biggest challenge thus far was a 101-99 Cancun Challenge overtime triumph over Marquette, which was ranked 20th at the time.
”We know Texas is a different beast,” Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. ”They can’t be ranked No. 2 in the country without being outstanding, and we understand that. It’s going to be a great challenge for us and something that I think our kids are looking forward to.”
A top-10 matchup on the women’s side and a rare Top 25 ranking for the men should help basketball draw more attention around campus now that a football coach has been hired. In the meantime, the two teams will continue cheering each other on.
”I watch all the men’s games, and I think like six of them were at our game today,” Nared said Wednesday after the Lady Vols’ 131-69 blowout of Troy. ”It’s nice that we’re supporting each other. They’re playing great. It’s nice to see them winning and doing so well.”
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