KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Bruce Pearl wrapped his postgame press conference and exited the media room here at Thompson-Boling Arena with more work still to do. Next up: The Bruce Pearl Show! Live on the court! So the Tennessee coach weaved through a hallway, emerged from the tunnel, and the thousands of fans hanging around to watch jumped and cheered and chanted, and it really was quite a scene.
Over to the side, Mike Hamilton stood and smiled.
Then he delivered a history lesson.
"We had five coaches in 15 years before Bruce's arrival," said Hamilton, the Tennessee athletic director. "But he came in and hit the ground, and he went out and sold the program, and all of these things have come together. Was I hopeful this would happen? Yeah. But the run he's had here in the last five years is nothing short of phenomenal."
Bruce Pearl did it again Saturday.
Final score: No. 19 Tennessee 74, No. 2 Kentucky 65.
So the past five seasons now feature wins over an undefeated and eventual national-title-winning Florida team (2006), a fourth-ranked Florida team that also won the national title (2007), a Memphis team that was ranked No. 1 and eventually played for a national title (2008), a Kansas team that was ranked No. 1 (last month), and a Kentucky team that was ranked No. 2 (Saturday).
And Pearl is doing all this at Tennessee.
That's important to remember because though the school has long been a major player in college athletics, it's not a traditional power in men's basketball. Like Hamilton said, the Vols had five coaches in the 15 years before Pearl's arrival in March 2005 -- they had made just five NCAA tournaments in the previous 22 seasons. And now Tennessee is on its way to a fifth consecutive NCAA tournament, and Wayne Chism -- one of three seniors in UT's starting lineup -- will close his career having never missed the field of 65.
"I didn't expect this at all [when I signed with Tennessee]," acknowledged Chism, who had eight points and six rebounds against Kentucky. "I was just excited to be going to college. ... Going to the tournament for the fourth year? It's amazing."
Also amazing: Pearl has won three SEC East titles.
And how about the fact that he's now 3-3 against John Calipari?
The two adversaries -- that's putting it mildly -- split their first four meetings while Calipari was at Memphis, which is wild considering eight players from those Memphis teams (Rodney Carney, Darius Washington, Shawne Williams, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey, Antonio Anderson and Tyreke Evans) went on to make an NBA roster, compared to just one player from Tennessee (C.J. Watson). This season, Calipari starts four projected first-round picks (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe) while Pearl starts a guy who couldn't make it at Oklahoma (Bobby Maze), a guy who couldn't make it at Arizona (J.P. Prince), a two-star recruit (Brian Williams), a player who wasn't even considered the best prospect on his high school team (Chism), and Scotty Hopson.
The four first-round picks beat UT two weeks ago.
The Vols evened the series Saturday.
(And before somebody sends the obligatory sounds-like-Pearl-ought-to-recruit-better e-mail, it's probably worth pointing out that Tennessee has a recruiting class ranked among the top five nationally set to enroll next season.)
|Tennessee splits the season series with John Wall and Kentucky. (Getty Images)|
Even if he's hesitant to talk about it publicly.
"Coach is never talking about himself, and he never really gives himself any credit," Maze said. "It's always about the fans or the players or about how much money we raised for cancer. That's the first thing he talked about today -- not the big win over Kentucky, but that we raised more than $130,000 for cancer. ... It shows us that sometimes it's not all about you."
But it is all about him.
Yes, the Vols still need to take that next step as a program and get past the Sweet 16, but to dwell on any perceived tournament shortcomings is to miss the larger point -- that Tennessee was mostly nonexistent in men's basketball before Pearl, and now the Vols are consistently ranked, consistently winning big games and on their way to the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season.
They have two wins this season over projected No. 1 seeds.
They were outmanned both times.
So how did they pull the upsets?
Pearl credited the ... crowd.
"We don't beat Kentucky or Kansas without 22,000," he said. "That's what makes this one of the best jobs in college basketball."
But the 22,000 doesn't happen without Pearl.
And his accomplishments.
And a pattern of big wins that are becoming more common than not.
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