The Tennessee Volunteers sit on top of the college basketball world for the first time in more than a decade this week after a few elite teams ahead in the polls suffered recent losses.
Duke fell to Syracuse. Virginia lost to Duke. Michigan fell to Wisconsin. That opened the door for the Vols to move up to their first No. 1 ranking since 2008.
So far the only loss for Rick Barnes’ squad came vs. Kansas earlier in the season. A 12-game winning streak, includes an undefeated 5-0 start to SEC play this year. Barnes was asked about the possibility of being ranked No. 1 after a 71-68 win vs. Alabama over the weekend.
“The guys that are playing right now built this thing,” Barnes told local media. “To be where we want to be you have to deal with that, and is it nice to ranked? Of course, because of the attention that comes to your program. You do that by staying focused on what is at hand. You do that by playing basketball and not letting the outside noise in. That is where you find out how close you are as a team when you come unraveled.”
You could say that there really is no true rival right now for Tennessee in hoops. Kentucky, ranked No. 8, will put the defending SEC champs to the test when they meet in February and early March.
Tennessee’s biggest rival, at least in national perception away from the court, is a program in its own state. That would be Memphis coached by its famous alum and former NBA all-star Penny Hardaway, along with his NBA-laden coaching staff, including former Timberwolves player and coach Sam Mitchell and former Wolves player Mike Miller.
The Vols won the matchup with the Tigers this season in a 102-92 game on the road, which ended with a scuffle and not-so-friendly words exchanged between Barnes and Hardaway about their teams since.
Hardaway has been very public with his frustration over the way he thinks Barnes views Memphis’ program. On ESPN’s Get Up morning show last week, Hardaway had this to say:
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Rick Barnes,” Hardaway told co-host and former Michigan and NBA guard Jalen Rose. “We had a situation here in a rivalry game. You know it’s going to be heated. You’ve had those rivalry games with Michigan State before I’m sure. So you know when you get into that game there’s going to be some high tempers and a lot of competitiveness. After the game, I didn’t think he gave our team a fair understanding of what we were trying to do. He was kind of mocking the NBA and our coaching staff, and I really didn’t like it. I have the utmost respect for him, but I couldn’t let him do my team like that.”
The Tigers didn’t win the game, but they won bigger on the in-state recruiting front. Hardaway signed a top-15 class in November that included two of the top three players in Tennessee in James Wiseman and Malcolm Dandridge, high school teammates at high-profile Memphis East. Wiseman, a 7-foot five-star big man, is the No. 1 player in the 2019 class. Four-star Mississippi forward D.J. Jeffries, who Hardaway coached in AAU basketball, is also part of the class.
“The thought process is to recruit the best talent to compete for a national championship,” Mitchell told the Star Tribune. “Memphis Tigers used to be a national powerhouse. It’s his goal to get us seen in that light again. All of a sudden, the same players Tennessee would come into Memphis recruiting we’re recruiting those players, too. And we’re starting to get commitments from them. So there’s going to be some tension, because Tennessee has had this state to itself for quite some time.”
It should be fun to see the battles Tennessee and Memphis have in their rivalry and in recruiting in the future, but the Vols (led by last year's SEC player of the year Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield) have a chance to make the biggest splash on the court this year as a potential Final Four national title contender in Minneapolis this April.