Column: Vols Should be No. 1, and They Can Handle It

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    One of the top three teams in the country took care of business on Saturday. Another didn’t.

    In Knoxville, No. 3 Tennessee beat Wake Forest 83-64 as four starters combined for 71 points in front of a season-high 19,846 fans. The win marked the Vols’ 10th win of the season – which is the quickest Tennessee has reached that mark since the 2007-08 season.

    While the Vols defeated Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon, No. 1 Kansas failed to get a win later that night. The Jayhawks were in Tempe, Arizona to take on No. 18 Arizona State – who they lost to 80-76.

    Kansas’ loss is significant to Tennessee for one reason and one reason only: It presents the possibility of the Vols being ranked No. 1 in the country when the new Associated Press Poll is released on Monday afternoon.

    Following Kansas’ loss, we’ve already seen one national media member place Tennessee at the top of his poll. Gary Parrish – a college basketball columnist for CBS and host of the Gary Parrish Show on 92.9 ESPN in Memphis – penciled in Tennessee as his No. 1 team in his updated Top 25 And 1 on Sunday morning. The Vols had been his No. 2 team dating back to their win over then-ranked No. 1 Gonzaga.

    “I went back and forth on what to do at the top,” Parrish wrote in his column. “It’s not hard to justify because Tennessee’s resume consists of that neutral-court win over Gonzaga with the lone loss coming to a full-strength Kansas team on a neutral-court in overtime. The Vols’ nine other games have all been against unranked schools, and they’ve beaten each by double-digits.”

    Parrish went on to explain that Tennessee is the only team in the country to check these four boxes: a win over a top 10 team in his Top 25 And 1, has zero losses to teams ranked outside of the top 10, has zero losses in regulation, and has nothing but double-digit victories over unranked opponents.

    It’s an impressive resume that nobody else in the country can claim, but will voters actually pencil in Tennessee over beloved No. 2 Duke? I say no. Though I don’t think anybody would be out of their mind for writing in Duke as the No. 1 team in the country, voters would be selecting the team with the most potential and the best NBA talent, not the best college basketball team as of Christmas Eve.

    Aside from having a better resume than Duke, Tennessee is playing better team basketball. The Vols have assisted on 228 of their 334 made baskets – a 62 percent clip compared to Duke’s 54 percent. Tennessee has also been shooting the basketball at a higher rate. The Vols’ .587 true shooting percentage ranks No. 31 in the country whereas Duke’s .576 true shooting percentage ranks 73rd.

    Defensively, Duke and Tennessee are neck-and-neck, with the Blue Devils having a slight edge statistically. But that’s when the resume can be taken into consideration. The Vols have played better competition – possessing the No. 9 toughest schedule in the country. Duke has played the No. 20 toughest schedule.

    Again, Duke is the most talented team in the country with the most potential. But Tennessee is the best college basketball team at the moment, and that should be reflected in the updated AP Poll.

    Rick Barnes – like every coach in the country – would prefer for his team not to be ranked No. 1 in order to avoid the national attention.

    “When you have a number in front of your name, it’s a red-letter game for everyone,” Barnes said following the Vols’ win over Wake Forest. “What we’ve never seen is the offseason hype coming to the season and where we are right now, so that’s all new. The way that we’ve gone through this, we’ve handled it pretty well.”

    Barnes knows his players see and hear all of the hype surrounding the program. He and his coaches address it when they feel necessary, but they still know what they want to do in terms of practice and the routine they’re in.

    “We’ve got good coaches who, when we have film and sit down and talk, they come down and break down certain things and how to act and how to be good players and role models,” senior forward Kyle Alexander explained. “It’s just blocking out all of the outside noise and understanding we still have a mission and a goal that we didn’t accomplish last year. We just need to continue to do it game-by-game.”

    If any team can handle the national attention, it’s Barnes’ team. Tennessee understands the bigger picture – that being ranked No. 1 during Christmas break doesn’t guarantee success in March.