published Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Vols celebrate, say must look forward


by Wes Rucker
Audio clip

Skylar McBee

KNOXVILLE -- The wild celebration that consumed Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday night felt nothing like January, but no one in the Tennessee men's basketball program seemed to mind.

Coach Bruce Pearl joined his shorthanded Volunteers in rejoicing over their stunning 76-68 victory over then-No. 1 Kansas.

"I'm a big fan of history," Pearl said. "We talk about trying to add to the great history of Tennessee athletics, and when you do something that hasn't been done since 1966, and that is beat the No. 1 team here in Knoxville ... you're adding to history, and you're going about doing the things that we obviously want to do here with this basketball program.

"That's something you should celebrate, and I'm glad we gave ourselves and others something to celebrate."

Sophomore wing Renaldo Woolridge called Sunday "the climax of my life so far." But it's not March; it's January.

Memories from Sunday's magic will last a lifetime, but the shine could wear off in mere days. Tennessee (12-2) moved up to ninth in the Associated Press rankings Monday but still has just six scholarship players active.

"Caution, still," Pearl said Monday. "The margin for error for is still very small. We withstood foul trouble last night, but there's not much margin for foul trouble or injury."

"We have to keep getting better, and we have to keep looking toward the next game," said freshman walk-on guard Skylar McBee, whose off-balance 3-pointer just beating the shot clock essentially sealed Sunday's win with 36 seconds left. "That is a big win, and we celebrated last night, and maybe a little bit today, but we have to get right back to work and go into SEC play.

"I don't think the Kansas win means as much if Auburn comes in and beats us Thursday, so we definitely have to get back to work and keep this same mentality."

The Vols have enjoyed so much success in SEC play the past few years that it's doubtful any league foe would take them lightly, and it's certain that none would feel sorry for them.

"It's easier to be the underdog," Pearl said. "It's a role that I'm more comfortable in. At Tennessee, we've only been the underdog for one year, really. But I'll accept the tag now, and I'll preach it as long as I possibly can."

But Sunday's win sewed the bull's-eye back on the UT jersey. The Vols aren't viewed by most as the SEC team to beat -- that would be second-ranked, undefeated Kentucky -- but they've re-established themselves as a marquee game on every team's schedule.

"That says something for another team if they beat us," McBee said. "We beat the No. 1 team in the country, so if they come in and beat us, it's kind of like they could, too. We're kind of slipping out of the underdog role, when people see that even though we're shorthanded that we can play with anybody in the country."

Pearl hopes his team will stay as humble as it's currently confident. Games must still be managed, at least for the time being, and some of the players at least say they understand that.

"Things are different; that's just the way it is," said senior point guard Bobby Maze, who Monday was named SEC player of the week. "We can achieve all our goals, but we have to do it a different way than we would have before all this stuff happened."

Added sophomore guard Scotty Hopson: "I really think everybody on our team feels like we're still competing for the Final Four and a national championship."

Woolridge said he and the other recent main rotation additions hope to help UT rediscover the scrappy mentality it had before featuring a roster full of top-shelf talent.

"I used to watch Tennessee basketball when I was back in L.A. It was always the underdog-type story," Woolridge said. "It was players who I felt had it inside of them but maybe never really got the opportunity, but then they stepped up in big-time opportunities and took advantage of them. And this is the perfect example of that.

"This is what I wanted to be a part of from the beginning. We just showed that we are here, and we are a force to be reckoned with, and we're just going to keep working hard and keep proving that. We can step up together and shine. We just showed that."

Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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