Was this the best team in Tennessee basketball history?
No doubt about it, said Tennessee Volunteer coach, Bruce Pearl, after his team lost for the second straight year in the Sweet 16, this time 79-60 to Louisville in Bobcat Arena in the East Region semifinals on Thursday.
"I told the guys that tonight's game doesn't take much away from the finest season in the history of Tennessee basketball,'' said Pearl after the game. "No team has accomplished the things that these guys accomplished this year, and I'm awfully proud of them.''
The Vols set new standards for wins in a season with 31 and also won the school's first outright SEC championship in 41 years while going 14-2 in SEC play—two more wins than any other team in the league.
Not only did the team produce a lot of wins, but the wins came against the nation's toughest schedule. Five of the teams on Tennessee's regular season schedule made it to the Sweet 16 and the Vols were 4-1 against those teams.
They beat West Virginia, 74-72; Xavier, 82-75; Western Kentucky, 88-82 and Memphis, 66-62, and lost to Texas, 97-78. Xavier has advanced to the Elite 8 and Memphis and Texas will have a chance to get there Friday.
Tennessee also beat American and Butler in the NCAA tournament and with the loss to Louisville they were a combined 14-5 against NCAA tournament teams this year.
Tennessee also played Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Georgia, and Arkansas twice each, sweeping Georgia and splitting with the other three, and beat Temple, Gonzaga and Mississippi State in their only meetings with them.
The Vols ran into an old nemesis in Rick Pitino, who has a roster filled with high school All-Americans. They include center David Padgett, who was a McDonald's and Parade All-American; forward Earl Clark, who also was a McDonald's and Parade All-American; guard Jerry Smith, who was a Parade All-American, while Terrence Williams and Andre McGee were both finalists for the McDonald's All-American game and Edgar Sosa was a Co-Player of the Year in New York City.
Pitino is now 19-3 all-time against Tennessee in his coaching career. Louisville had now won five straight against Tennessee and 12 of its last 13. Pitino was 11-0 against Tennessee while at Kentucky.
J.P. Prince, a sophomore, said the Vols will come back next year and try again.
"Getting to the Sweet 16 has not been a problem for us,'' said Prince. "It's just taking that next step. We also have an SEC tournament title to win.''
Pearl said he expects to have another good team next season, but said it is premature to say what the expectations are because it is still very much a team in the making.
"We feel good about what we have coming back,'' said Pearl, when asked to look ahead to next season. "It's hard to answer that question right now because we were so focused on this group, but we're going to put a team out there that is representative. I feel good about our team next year.''
The Vols are after the No. 9 player in the nation (per Rivals.com), Scotty Hopson of Hopkinsville, Ky., who would give the Vols their first McDonald's All-American since Vincent Yarbrough—if he signs.
They also have a point guard committed and two inside players. The inside players are four-star prospects Philip Jurick, a 6-10, 250-pound center from Chattanooga, Tennessee and Renaldo Woolridge, a 6-8, 205-pound small forward from North Hollywood, California. The point guard is three-star Daniel West of Detroit. They also have a standout committed for 2009—6-8 Kenny Hall of Atlanta, who is a four-star prospect.
Though J.P. Prince started at point guard the last two games, he said he will be content to go back to his natural position -- wing.
"Ramar Smith is my point guard,'' said Prince. "He will be the leader of this team next year.''
Hopson is a 6-5 wing who is rated a five-star. He is also being recruited by Louisville, Kentucky, Mississippi State Cincinnati and Texas.
Tennessee will also have the services of 6-5 wing player Cameron Tatum, who redshirted this year but is a scorer and good outside shooter.
Will Pearl be back?
"It's great to be a Tennessee Vol,'' said Pearl. "I anticipate, if Tennessee will have me, being back at Tennessee. I think they'll have me.''
Pearl's name has been mentioned with Indiana. Athletic director, Mike Hamilton plans to sit down with Pearl to work out a raise and contract extension to make sure that doesn't happen.