Vols work to en­joy view from the top

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - BY GENE HEN­LEY STAFF WRITER

KNOXVILLE — Ten­nessee’s trek to be­ing the No. 1 men’s bas­ket­ball team in the coun­try was a four-year jour­ney that started when coach Rick Barnes was hired.

When the Vol­un­teers reached the top rank­ing last month, the num­ber be­came a tar­get on their backs for op­po­nents and seem­ingly the emo­tional equiv­a­lent of car­ry­ing a pack full of 45-pound plates on those backs. For Ten­nessee play­ers, main­tain­ing the rank­ing be­came a task more than a dis­tinc­tion worth cel­e­brat­ing.

“We’ve just been straight­for­ward,” se­nior Ad­mi­ral Schofield said af­ter the Vols beat Florida 73-61 Satur­day in Knoxville. “It’s been a ‘clock in, clock out’ type of mind­set in­stead of en­joy­ing be­ing out there.”

Satur­day’s win ex­tended Ten­nessee’s pro­gram-record win­ning streak to 18 games, but the Vols have faced dif­fer­ent lev­els of ad­ver­sity dur­ing their run of suc­cess. They needed over­time to Ten­nessee’s Grant Wil­liams draws a foul dur­ing the top-ranked Vols’ 73-61 home win against Florida on Satur­day. The Vols host South Carolina on Wed­nes­day as they try to ex­tend their win­ning streak to 19 games.

knock off Van­der­bilt in Nashville on Jan. 23. West Vir­ginia led them 19-7 a few days later in Thomp­son-Bol­ing Arena. For a while, the pres­sure on them seemed to be im­mense.

Now it ap­pears they’ve set­tled

in, based on im­proved de­fen­sive per­for­mances against Mis­souri and Florida this past week. For the sec­ond time this sea­son, the Vols beat those op­po­nents in the

same week, and the games were ex­tremely sim­i­lar, with Ten­nessee lim­it­ing the Tigers and Ga­tors to com­bined 36 per­cent suc­cess from the field both times.

At times, it looked like last sea­son, when the Vols had one of — if not the — best de­fenses in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence, and it ap­pears to be right on time, be­cause the meat of their sched­ule is ap­proach­ing.

Ten­nessee (22-1, 10-0) may be No. 1 in both ma­jor polls, but it was listed as the sec­ond-best team in the coun­try — be­hind Duke — when pro­jected NCAA tour­na­ment seedings were re­leased Satur­day. Though they’ll soon have much tougher chal­lenges, so far the Vols have faced only one SEC team likely to be con­sid­ered for the NCAA tour­na­ment next month, and the Vols took their home win against Alabama down to the wire.

Of the SEC teams the Vols have faced so far this sea­son, only Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina were .500 or bet­ter in league com­pe­ti­tion. Ten­nessee’s other SEC wins this year have come against Florida, Ge­or­gia, Mis­souri, Texas A&M and Van­der­bilt, which are a com­bined 9-41 in SEC play.

“It is just a num­ber,” ju­nior for­ward Grant Wil­liams said of the rank­ing. “It is an honor to have, and it is a pres­ti­gious achieve­ment. We just come in ev­ery day and work like we nor­mally do. There is no change in what we do. We know we want to ex­e­cute. We know we are go­ing to play top teams in the SEC ev­ery sin­gle night.

“We know that we can get knocked off any mo­ment, so we have to come in with an edge rather than (a men­tal­ity of) we are num­ber one and we are the best team. We have to come in and un­der­stand that no mat­ter who you play in the SEC, you have a chance to lose that night.”

The sched­ule ahead is much, much more daunt­ing. Of the Vols’ eight re­main­ing reg­u­lar-sea­son games, six are against teams with SEC records of .500 or bet­ter, start­ing with Wed­nes­day’s 6:30 p.m. home game against South Carolina (12-11, 7-3), which Ten­nessee beat 92-70 on Jan. 29 in Columbia.

So there’s plenty of time to sort all the rank­ings and seeds out. Right now, Ten­nessee play­ers are try­ing their best to en­joy what’s shap­ing up to be the best sea­son in school his­tory. Try­ing to.

“We’ve got to get back to en­joy­ing win­ning,” Schofield said. “We’ve never been in this po­si­tion be­fore, so it’s been feel­ing like a busi­ness, but at the same time it’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s my last year, it’s Kyle (Alexan­der’s) last year. Guys are play­ing well, so hope­fully they’ll get the op­por­tu­nity to chase their dream, but we’re not go­ing to be the same team af­ter this year. We’ve got to re­ally en­joy it, so for us, that’s some­thing to home in on.

“But when we lock in, I don’t think any­body can fool with us.”

Con­tact Gene Hen­ley at ghen­[email protected]­freep­ress.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @gene­hen­ley3 or at Face­book.com/Vol­sUp­date.

PHOTO BY PA­TRICK MUR­PHY-RACEY

AP PHOTO/WADE PAYNE

Ten­nessee guard Ad­mi­ral Schofield takes the ball up the court against West Vir­ginia on Jan. 26 in Knoxville. Ten­nessee won 83-66.

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