By Josh Ward
Tennessee’s basketball team wasn’t supposed to accomplish any of this.
The Vols won 76-54 at Mississippi State on Tuesday night, improving their overall record to 22-7 and their SEC record to 12-5. With Auburn’s loss at Arkansas on Tuesday, Tennessee is now tied with Auburn in first place of the SEC standings.
You’ve probably heard by now that Tennessee was picked at the beginning of the season to finish 13th in the SEC by the media. While that prediction seemed likely to end up wrong at the time, hardly anyone outside of Tennessee’s basketball facility expected the Vols to play for the SEC regular season title.
Tennessee is a team made up of prospects who were mostly limited in their college opportunities coming out of high school.
Just look at Tennessee’s two most important post players: Admiral Schofield had six total scholarship offers out of high school; Grant Williams chose Tennessee over Boston College, Harvard and Yale.
A team made up of unheralded players was going to have to prove something before it would receive national attention.
In November, Tennessee went to the Bahamas and beat Purdue in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. That win, followed by a competitive performance against Villanova and a win over North Carolina State, created some buzz for the Vols.
“I was floored by them,” CBS Sports college basketball writer Reid Forgrave said of the Vols’ performance in the Bahamas.
This Tennessee team’s ceiling has continued to rise since the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The Vols are ranked No. 13 in the latest rankings from Ken Pomeroy. That mark ties the highest KenPom rating a Tennessee team had during Bruce Pearl’s six seasons coaching the Vols.
Tennessee’s 2007-08 team, which finished with a 31-5 record, was also ranked No. 13 by KenPom. Cuonzo Martin’s 2013-14 team was the only team rated higher; it was No. 10 at the end of the season.
Tennessee has a chance to finish the season with some special accomplishments. The Vols will play for at least a share of the SEC regular season title on Saturday; as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, Tennessee will have a reasonable chance to win the SEC tournament for the first time since 1979; and as a projected No. 3 seed, a deep run in the NCAA tournament will be very possible.
Who saw this coming when the season began in November?
“I’m just stunned,” Forgrave said. “As much as any team in the country, I am most surprised by this Tennessee team.”
Everyone seems surprised, except for the Tennessee basketball team.