State of Tennessee hoops as strong as ever

By: Wes Boling Email
By: Wes Boling Email

(WVLT) -- Tennessee is a football state, right?

After all, the heroics of Volunteer gridiron legends are well-documented, spanning three centuries of "three yards and a cloud of dust."

But look again at the Volunteer State, and you'll see a growing following of fans flocking to one of three arenas, escaping the mild Tennessee chill to witness one of three scorching hoops phenomena.

In the East, the Middle, and the West, nylon and nikes are replacing pigskin and pads, as Tennessee emerges as the most successful state in college basketball. Memphis, Vanderbilt and Tennessee are all ranked in the top 14, and the 500-mile-wide southeastern sliver is the only region on the country to make that claim.

Certainly, the Memphis Tigers have always served as a prominent landmark on the Mississippi River flood plain. The city has long been a hardwood heaven, and ace recruiter John Calipari has all-but-sealed the city limits, staking the blue-and-grey flag inside high school gyms all over the metropolis and taking with him the area's best players.

The second-ranked Tigers are one of three undefeated teams left in college hoops, and their Conference USA throne looks to be virtually unchallenged again this season; dating back to the conference restructuring in 2005, the Tigers boast a 31-1 league record.

Vanderbilt has emerged as a surprise contender this season. The 'Dores were one of a few remaining undefeateds until falling at Kentucky earlier in the week, and feature the SEC's top offense, including the two highest scorers in the conference, Shan Foster and fab frosh A.J. Ogilvy.

Kevin Stallings' squad comes to Knoxville Thursday to stake its claim to state superiority. The Vols, at 14-1, boast what may arguably become the best team in school history, mirroring the high-flying theatrics and charismatic character of the Ray Mears, "Ernie and Bernie show" days.

But, unlike the days of lore, when Grunfield and King set Stokely Athletic Center ablaze, it's not a two-man show this year. Sure, Tyler Smith and Chris Lofton contribute more than a few volts of star power, but it's the supporting cast that makes this Tennessee team such a multifaceted threat.

There's the self-deprecating on- and off-court leadership of JaJuan Smith, the sure-handed ball distribution of point guard Jordan Howell, and the lanky, suave ballhandling of J.P. Prince.

Add to it the firecracker mentality of Bruce Pearl, whose brashness and shameless promotion of Tennessee basketball make the best baby-kissing politicians jealous, and you've got a team that will not only contend for basketball superiority in the state of Tennessee, but has also snatched up more than its fair share of headlines.

So whether you're a backer of Calipari's playground-style Tiger basketball team, Stallings' heady, deliberate offense, or Pearl's fullcourt-pressing, backboard-leaping big orange, there's one thing we can all agree upon.

When it comes to the "state of the State" on the hardcourt, things have never been more exciting.


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