Tennessee Basketball: Bruce Pearl, Vols Still Riding High

Joel BarkerSenior Writer IJanuary 18, 2010

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 15:  Head coach Bruce Pearl of the Tennessee Volunteers yells to his players during the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the Championship game of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament on March 15, 2009 at The St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Despite the recent spate of headlines involving uproar and turmoil in the football program, Tennessee's basketball team is still riding a wave of emotion and stellar play.

In the most recent version of proof that Tennessee is still a football school, the basketball team's gigantic win over the No. 1 team in the country quickly took a backseat to the Lane Kiffin saga just two days after that thrilling victory.

At a time when college basketball is just hitting its stride nationally, football rears its expensive head and shows that it is tops in Knoxville and in most of the SEC (Lexington, Ky., being the obvious exception).

Sure, National Signing Day is just two weeks away, and anytime your head coach spends a year with constant media attention before bolting to a program like USC after one season, the news will be decidedly in favor of that incident.

I will say, however, it's high time someone began recognizing Tennessee as a two-sport school rather than a "football school" or a "basketball school."

Florida made the trek into this territory a few years ago when its basketball team won two consecutive national titles. The second title coincided with the football team's first of two national championships.

While the Vols football team has not won a title of any sort in almost 12 years, its basketball team won the SEC outright once and played in the finals of the SEC tournament last season.

This in addition to the BasketVols playing into the Sweet 16 twice and beating up on that two-time national champion Florida team many times along the way.

This season has been a remarkable story for Bruce Pearl's Vols. With the loss of four key players heading into perhaps the team's roughest stretch of games before hitting the SEC portion of the schedule, many pundits and fans thought the worst.

The resulting stretch of four straight wins over opponents such as Charlotte, No. 1 Kansas, and SEC foes Auburn and No. 21 Ole Miss have brought those thoughts of utter destruction to a complete halt.

Now the Vols must hit the road in seven of their next 12 games.

To put it plainly, this is where the rubber meets the road.

This next stretch will either prove that this Tennessee basketball team is the one that is capable of beating anyone on any given day, or if the emotion of the moment caused the team to play above its head.

Will the stellar play of Josh Bone, Bobby Maze, and Renaldo Woolridge continue now that two of the four suspended Vols are back on the team?

How about seniors J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism? Will they continue to lead the way?

We know that the leadership of this coaching staff led by Pearl, a man who should be revered much higher in the scope of Tennessee athletics, will be a constant.

Under Pearl's leadership, the Vols have always been in the SEC title conversation. That's much more than we can say of the football team in recent years.

Pearl has been a rock of stability while the football program just hired its third coach in three years.

When the football Vols went on a stretch that included big wins over Georgia and South Carolina, with a narrow loss at No. 1 Alabama thrown in, many of us proclaimed Tennessee football officially back on the map.

The basketball team wins four huge games after losing four key players, and many Big Orange supporters barely even notice.

That section of supporters is growing larger by the day, however. The Vols had sellout crowds in two of the four big games recently. As the team continues to gain momentum and climb higher in the polls—No. 8 in the AP Top 25 this week—so does the support from Volniacs.

I guarantee once Feb. 3 is over and done with—National Signing Day for Football—the interest in the basketball Vols will grow exponentially.

Pearl and the Vols are aiming to make the '09-10 season the last in which that statement will prove true. These next few games will go a long way to securing that.