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 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.
"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."