Tennessee Upsets Top-Ranked Kansas With Six Scholarship Players
He's not supposed to be in this position. Not supposed to be draped by a defender for the No. 1 team in the country with the ball in his hands just a few months removed from playing high school basketball in tiny Rutledge, Tenn. But he's on the court because Tennessee is down to just six scholarship players and there is no one else to put in the game. He pivots right, the crowd screams as one, aware that the shot clock is winding down but not sure McBee is aware of that fact. And then, comes the magic, the reason why we all watch college basketball.
Leaning and twisting away from his defender, McBee throws up a prayer a millisecond before the shot clock expires. And his three-pointer draws nothing but net to give the Vols a six-point lead with 36 seconds remaining. Amazingly, there was no doubt. The biggest win of the Bruce Pearl era was going to happen. Now, improbably, just ten days removed from the darkest stain of the Pearl era, the arrest of four players for misdemeanor gun and drug charges. With just six scholarship players, Bruce Pearl and Tennessee pulled off the improbable.
This is Bruce Pearl's fifth season. After three stellar seasons in Knoxville, last season was a totally different story. The Vols, picked by everyone to win the SEC, stumbled out of the gate, played selfishly, without smarts, even appeared disinterested at times. The team was the antithesis of everything Pearl had instilled in his first three seasons. They were scowling malcontents, offended at the very idea that they could have ever committed a foul. Put simply, they thought they were better than they were. If there's any more infuriating trait in a team, it's that one. The overconfident swagger that doesn't arrive when big baskets are needed, but reveals itself in excessive celebrations during wins over teams that didn't match the Vols' talent. Too often Tennessee could drain a series of threes when the game wasn't close, but when winning time arrived, the swagger vanished and the team turned tail.
The talent was there, but the inconsistency was so mind-boggling that many Vol fans, myself included, derived hardly any enjoyment from watching the team play last season. The Vols finished the SEC season 10-6, still won the East in a down year for basketball in the league, lost to an inferior Mississippi State team in the SEC Tourney championship and lost by two to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Then came this season. The highly-ranked Vols returned everyone, but the passion didn't seem to be there. How else to explain a 22-point loss at USC when Tennessee failed to compete at all? Pearl, the Incredible Bulk as he sometimes calls himself, seemed incapable of recapturing the same passion with this group of players that he had with his first three teams.
Where was the derring-do, the thrill of competition, the swagger of a team and coach who believes that no matter the situation, they're going to triumph?
And have fun while doing it.
Amazingly, in one fell swoop, the arrest turned a team of selfish underachievers into hard-working underdogs. On Wednesday, the Vols took the court for the first time without the suspended foursome, and played with a scalding passion, a fevered intensity. They didn't have as many good players, but Pearl suddenly had a team that reflected his own personality once again, a group of hard charging underdogs who had nothing to lose. Against Charlotte, Tennessee basketball had the old-time Bruce Pearl feel.
But that was against Charlotte. The question remained, what would happen against the nation's top team with a depleted roster?
And so they tipped the ball off on a frigid Sunday afternoon in Tennessee.
1. Enter the Kansas Jayhawks, 14-0, with just two of those wins by less than double digits.
The Jayhawks showed a bit of a weak chin against Cornell, won, but proved that they weren't clicking on all cylinders. Even still, early in this game it appears that Cole Aldrich is on pace for 100 rebounds. He and his Kansas teammates are grabbing every offensive miss.
Kansas appears crisper, better organized in the half-court, and able to get whatever shot they want whenever they want it.
The Jayhawks surge out to a 14-6 lead with just under 14 minutes to play.
It will be their largest lead of the game.
2. Down 16-10 early, a Tennessee forward named Renaldo Woolridge takes a pass at the top of the key.
Woolridge, son of former Notre Dame and NBA star Orlando Woolridge (and second cousin of Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed), stepped into Tyler Smith's starting role after his dismissal. Thus far in his Tennessee career, Woolridge has most distinguished himself by pursuing a rap career under the stage name Swiperboy.
I wish I was making that up
He's also not shy when it comes to missing three-point shots.
With a little under 10 minutes left in the first half, Swiperboy takes the pass and lets fly from the top of the key.
The shot banks directly off the backboard and settles through the net.
It's 16-13 and the crowd exults.
In the next one minute-forty-one seconds, Woolridge fires in two more threes.
Suddenly we're tied at 19, Kansas is taking a timeout, and Woolridge is not just a rapper who plays basketball. He's a basketball player.
It's impossible to understate how important Woolridge's personal 9-0 run was, or how improbable it was based on what the sophomore had done in any game prior.
Don't believe me?
Against Memphis just 10 days ago, Swiperboy got only eight minutes on the floor.
3. Midway through the first half, Tennessee's two most experienced seniors, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince, pick up their second fouls.
Both men are pulled from the game.
Tennessee's offense, and I'm not making this up, features the coach's son, Steven Pearl, putting the ball on the floor and trying to get to the basket.
But, to be fair, it's not like Steven Pearl hasn't been an offensive weapon before.
Okay, so that was in Israel at the Maccabi Games against only Israeli players but...
Yeah, he's not really an offensive weapon.
But Tennessee hangs tough.
4. Until Bruce Pearl inexplicably brings back in Wayne Chism with 1:55 remaining in the half.
Chism has been out of the game since picking up his second foul with 7:39 remaining.
The Vols are in decent shape, leading by a few points.
Rather than leave Chism out for the remainder of the game, Pearl rolls the dice ... and Chism picks up a blocking foul with 34 seconds left in the half.
He's now got three.
As an aside, someone needs to put together a video compilation of Wayne Chism's foul calls. If there is any big man in college basketball who gets called for more touch fouls, I want to see it.
Wayne is a walking foul magnet.
5. On offense Kansas is stifled.
The Jayhawks aren't getting great dribble penetration from Sherron Collins and their offense stagnates. The Jayhawks make just one basket from the floor for one eight-minute stretch as the half wanes.
Tennessee is pressing the passing lanes and rotating well on the perimeter to challenge the shooters while encouraging other Jayhawks to let fly from a distance.
6. In fact, on paper what looked like the biggest mismatch in the game, Kansas's Collins against Tennessee's Bobby Maze, is proving to be anything but.
Prior to this game Maze has been erratic at best.
Collins has been consistently excellent.
While Maze has been frequently beaten off the dribble and inconsistent at getting to the rim, Collins has carried Kansas on his back at times. If anything you'd expect Collins to exploit Maze and set up Kansas's offense in great situations.
You'd expect that.
But for tonight, you'd be wrong.
Collins is still getting his points, but Maze is making him work for them. What's more, Collins isn't distributing the ball that well: he'll finish with five assists but also four turnovers. He's also taking a lot of contested threes and will finish just 2-10 from outside the arc.
What's more, Maze begins to beat Collins off the dribble and get to the rim. What's more, Maze is finishing when he gets there.
7. At the half we're tied at 33-33.
With the Vols in foul trouble, you'd expect Kansas to dial up the pressure for the second half and try to tire out the undermanned Tennessee team.
But Bill Self elects not to.
In fact, for much of the second half he elects to play zone and let Tennessee rest on offense -- evidently gambling on the fact that the Vols can't make outside shots.
8. Early in the second half, Tennessee begins to pull away.
Courtesy of the patented top of the key Wayne Chism three. The Vols surge ahead 46-39.
It's a huge shot that suggests the game will go down to the wire. Kansas will not be pulling away from the Vols today.
9. But then near disaster strikes. In a span of 10 seconds both Prince and Chism get their fourth fouls.
Now Pearl is forced to rely on the walk-ons for serious minutes. At one point Tennessee has three walk-ons on the floor together, Josh Bone, Skylar McBee, and Steven Pearl.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that an opponent has never beaten the No. 1 team in the country while playing three walk-ons with double-digit minutes.
That's probably a stat that's impossible to disprove, so consider it a fact.
Surely, Kansas will exert its will now.
10. But the Jayhawks can't. In fact, Tennessee's own Hamlet, Scotty Hopson, outdribbles his greatest enemy, his capacity to overthink on the court, and begins to attack the basket.
No one on Kansas can stay in front of him.
Hopson punctuates this display with a rousing baseline dunk on Kansas's Cole Aldrich that sends Thompson-Boling Arena into a frenzy.
Hopson, who memorably tripped over a referee while celebrating a big dunk last year, doesn't even react that much to this stellar play, perhaps the most explosive of his Volunteer career.
And with 10:24 left the Vols are up 9.
11. Meanwhile, Maze, who will only leave the court for seven minutes tonight, is on his way to besting Collins.
Maze makes a run at a triple-double, going for 16 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds. What's more, despite being ballhawked all night on defense, Maze only turns the ball over twice.
12. Even still, Kansas makes its run. With 6:47 left the Vols lead by eight, 62-54.
In a little over two minutes the Jayhawks tie the game at 64 on two Tyshon Taylor free throws.
13. Now comes crunch time.
The time when this Volunteer team has typically failed to make the big play, allowed defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory.
Only not this time and not this team.
Somehow, some way, through the complicated calculus of basketball, Tennessee has subtracted four players and found its inner warrior.
14. But not without a struggle.
Up six with the ball and 1:10 remaining, Wayne Chism decides to go Harlem Globetrotters on us, and dribbles behind his back.
The ball is stripped and Kansas's Brady Morningstar drills a three.
Suddenly it's a one-possession game with an awful lot of time remaining.
15. With 39 seconds left, Tennessee's McBee has the ball.
The crowd stirs as the clock wanes. We've all seen this before, this Volunteer team crumbling down the stretch.
Does McBee, the walk-on freshman, know the time situation?
Not until the last moment.
But then McBee lets loose with the ball from his hands. In the time the ball is in the air you can track the prayers of a million Tennesseans, all willing the ball in the basket.
And McBee hits one of the biggest shots in the history of Thompson-Boling Arena -- the only shot, mind you, to ever beat a No. 1-ranked team there.
16. And by the time McBee's shot nestles through the net, the biggest win of the Bruce Pearl era is assured.
Some may quibble and argue that the win over top-ranked Memphis two seasons ago was bigger. That game lifted the Vols to the overall No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history.
Some might point out that this is an early January game and might not matter at all come March. That any NCAA tournament win is bigger.
But I disagree.
This one was bigger, this one was the biggest.
Not because it was Kansas, but because of all the noise off the court, with so few players available to go on that court, with the entire basketball program under seige -- and some might argue with the entire athletic department under seige -- this was the win that mattered the most.
In the immediate wake of the victory, as 21,936 fans screamed along to Rocky Top as loudly as they could, the win didn't feel so much like an ending as a new beginning.
"Bruuuuuce" cooed the crowd.
Suddenly, and improbably, with just six scholarship players and three walk-ons to rely on, Bruce Pearl got his groove back.
The rest of the SEC better watch out.
Because the only thing more dangerous than the Incredible Bulk with a basketball team filled with stars, is an Incredible Bulk with absolutely nothing to lose.
Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, "On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era" chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season and is on sale now and makes a great stocking stuffer. You have a stocking for Martin Luther King Day, right?