What follows is some free grandfatherly advice from a long-ago eighth-grade basketball coach at Powell, undefeated no less.
Cherish these Tennessee Volunteers. Wherever you are, tip your cap. Be proud they are ours. Never in your or my lifetime has there been anything quite like this in our town.
This is a team in the truest sense of the word. The sum is greater than the individual parts. Can you believe 20-1? Credit Rick Barnes’ development plan and philosophy of tough love. He is very demanding, but his players take it because they know he cares. They also know he is smart.
Picking up the coach on the rebound from Texas was Dave Hart’s finest move during his controversial time as UT athletic director. That No. 1 was no contest. The list of Hart positives is relatively short.
That leads to a confession. I feared Barnes saw Tennessee as an ideal retirement plan – easy money, good neighbors, lakes, mountains and dogwood trees. I had no idea the fire was still burning.
For a while, my concern was validated. Barnes appeared at civic clubs and church suppers. He was not flying around the country to be in the recruiting line for elite prospects. Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas were always there. Lapels pegged with the power T were somewhere else, out of the spotlight, out of sight.
Barnes and associates (Rob Lanier, Desmond Oliver and Michael Schwartz) did not beat the big boys for Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield or Jordan Bone. They certainly didn’t slay any giants to get Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bowden or Lamonte Turner. None of the above made the top 100 list of prospects.
All the above have meshed to make this a season of delight. It is almost as if the entire staff knows what it is doing.
Here’s the winning edge. These players take the team concept seriously. They pick each other up. There are no sticky fingers that hold the ball until the shot clock runs down. The stars are absolutely unselfish. So it once was with Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. Mutual respect makes it possible to play with just one basketball.
The Barnes offense is very efficient. Bone, on most nights, is a brilliant director. Williams is one tough hombre (and great conversationalist). Schofield has the heart of a lion.
Some games the ball has a mind of its own and fits right into the basket. The Vols hit 65 percent at Texas A&M. They started as if they might never miss. Amazing that the Aggies closed to within two. Impressive that the Vols weathered the storm and won going away.
In theory, defense was supposed to set this team apart.
Once the fundamentals are mastered, defense and rebounding are mostly a matter of desire. It is hard work without the headlines. Statistics do not begin to tell the story of success. Barnes is a motivational magician. His formula is simple. Play defense or don’t play.
The Vols are playing defense but not as well as last season.
Come to think of it, strength and conditioning is a hallmark, too. Barnes can go eight or nine deep if he has to or six Vols can do almost all the work without falling over from exhaustion. Garrett Medenwald, strength coach, has been accused of madness. Vols smile when they say that.
The No. 1 team in the country didn’t happen like instant potatoes. It was built the hard way, with honest labor. The group has been together three seasons. It learned about pressure. The men learned to get up when knocked down. They learned to keep their poise when the world around them was going crazy.
One of Barnes’ key words is focus. Don’t be distracted. The simple goal is every day improvement. The net result is 16 consecutive victories, a school record. The old one was set more than a hundred years ago.
As wise as I think I am, I can’t say for sure where this joy will end. I didn’t expect 20-1. I do not expect perfection the rest of the way. Life on the SEC road is very challenging.
Winning the NCAA title is a crapshoot among the 10 or 12 top teams. One injury, one stray pass, one wrong whistle can alter the outcome. One off night in shooting accuracy can be deadly if the foe is on.
From this distance, those things are beyond our control. What we can do is appreciate the amazing things that are happening game to game.
I am not a cheerleader but, all together now: Go Vols!
Marvin West invites reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org