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VOL. 133 | NO. 55 | Friday, March 16, 2018


Dave Link

A Look Back At UT’s History In NCAA Tourney

Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Basketball coach Rick Barnes was fired by Texas in late March of 2015 when he refused to fire members of his coaching staff.

Barnes said his staffers offered to quit, but he refused to let them. So, he was fired.

It couldn’t have been better timing for Tennessee, which fired basketball coach Donnie Tyndall on March 28, 2015, amid an NCAA investigation.

Barnes was hired by Tennessee on March 31, 2015. Three years later, he has delivered one of the best coaching jobs in the nation.

Vols forward Dale Ellis defends against Virginia’s Ralph Sampson during a second-round game in the NCAA Mideast Regional’s in 1982. (AP File Photo)

Tennessee, picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC, won a share of the league’s regular-season title this year, reached the SEC tournament championship game last Sunday, and entered Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Wright State with a 25-8 record.

“He’s my national coach of the year,” veteran ESPN color analyst Dick Vitale said of Barnes during UT’s loss to Kentucky in the SEC title game.

Regardless of what Tennessee does in the NCAA Tournament, this team has given fans reason to be all-in on Vols basketball again. And Barnes deserves a ton of credit.

In honor of Barnes and the 2017-18 team, we take a look at some memorable NCAA Tournament teams in Tennessee hoops history.

Ray Mears era

Mears created some UT magic when he recruited a couple of players from New York City to make “The Bernie and Ernie Show.”

Those were some glory days at Stokely Center, which rocked in the days of Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld.

However, Grunfeld and King – along with Mears, the master promotor – didn’t fare well in the NCAAs. They went 0-2 in their two NCAA appearances in 1976 and ’77 when it was a 32-team bracket.

King, the 6-foot-6 forward from Brooklyn, New York, missed the 1976 first-round game against VMI with an injured left thumb. Grunfeld, a 6-6 forward from Forest Hills, New York, scored 36 and grabbed eight rebounds against VMI, but the Vols lost 81-75.

Tennessee’s mid-1970s dynamic duo of Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. 

Mears actually had King get in uniform for the second half of the VMI loss in a motivational attempt.

“I wasn’t about to play him,” Mears said. “We weren’t about to risk his future. Most of you don’t realize how much he means to us. We were just hoping to get through this first game.”

They didn’t, and VMI lost in the second round to Rutgers, 91-75. Tennessee finished the 1975-76 season with a 21-6 record.

Two seniors played their last games in the loss to VMI: shooting guard Austin Clark and center Doug Ashworth.

Guard/wing Mike Jackson and point guard Johnny Darden returned as the starters alongside King and Grunfeld, and Mears bolstered the frontcourt for the 1976-77 season with the addition of Reggie Johnson at low post/center.

Tennessee went 21-6 and 16-2 in the SEC, tying Kentucky for the league’s regular-season championship. The Vols drew Syracuse and first-year coach Jim Boeheim in the first round of the NCAAs and began preparing for Orangemen center Roosevelt Bouie.

Syracuse rolled to a 93-88 overtime victory, marking the end of the “Bernie and Ernie Show.” It was also the end of an era for Ray Mears, who dealt with depression issues for years and sat out the 1977-78 season with Cliff Wettig serving as acting head coach. Mears officially retired after the season. He was the Vols’ coach from 1962-77.

King and Grunfeld, meanwhile, were off to their careers in the NBA. In three seasons with the Vols, King averaged 25.8 points and 13.2 rebounds. Grunfeld averaged 22.3 points and 6.6 rebounds in four seasons.

Don Devoe era

Don DeVoe was hired as Mears’ successor after solid coaching runs at Virginia Tech and Wyoming.

His first season, 1978-79, was a rousing success. DeVoe led the Vols to a second-place finish (12-6) in the SEC regular season, and with two wins in the league tournament, an SEC tournament championship.

Tennessee drew Eastern Kentucky in Murfreesboro in the first round of the NCAAs, which was expanded to 40 teams in ’79.

The Vols posted their first NCAA victory with a 97-81 win over the Ohio Valley Conference champion. Johnson, now at power forward with Howard Wood at center, led the Vols with 20 points and nine rebounds against Eastern Kentucky.

UT’s other starters were Terry Crosby at small forward, Gary Carter at shooting guard, and Bert Bertelkamp at point guard. (Bertelkamp, a Knoxville native, is now the Vol Network’s color commentator for UT basketball games).

After beating Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee lost to Notre Dame 73-67 in the NCAA round-of-16. Notre Dame’s lineup included Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge, Bill Hanzlik and Bill Laimbeer.

DeVoe coached the Vols to five consecutive NCAA appearances (1979-83) and nine straight postseasons as UT’s coach from 1978-89.

His 1981-82 team was one of his best led by SEC Player of the Year Dale Ellis.

The Vols went 19-9 in the regular season and tied for the SEC regular-season title with a 13-5 record.

In the 1982 NCAAs, with the tournament expanded to 48 teams, the No. 9-seed Vols beat No. 8 Southwestern Louisiana 61-57, moving on to a second-round matchup against Ralph Sampson-led Virginia, a No. 1 seed. Sampson had 19 points and nine rebounds in Virginia’s 54-51 victory; Ellis had 16 points and nine rebounds and shooting guard Michael Brooks led UT with 24 points.

Brooks and Ellis returned in 1983 when the Vols again won a first-round NCAA game. No. 8 Tennessee beat No. 9 Marquette in the opener and lost to No. 1 Louisville, 70-57. Ellis scored 13 in his final game for UT before starting his NBA career.

Tennessee made just one more NCAA appearance under DeVoe, an 84-68 loss to West Virginia in the 1989 tournament. Forward Dyron Nix was the Vols’ top player – he had 22 points in the loss to West Virginia – but the program was on the decline under DeVoe, who resigned after the 1988-89 season.

DeVoe took over as interim head coach at Florida to clean up the program in the aftermath of NCAA infractions during Norm Sloan’s tenure.

Tennessee, meanwhile, turned to Wade Houston for the coaching vacancy. Houston was able to bring a star player to Knoxville – his son, Alan Houston, Tennessee’s career scoring leader (2,801) – but he wasn’t able to deliver an NCAA appearance in his five seasons (1989-94).

Jerry Green era

Not until Jerry Green’s first season as Tennessee’s coach (1997-98) did the Vols get back to the NCAA tournament.

After Houston’s tenure ended, the Vols spent three seasons under Kevin O’Neill, who resigned after his third team (1996-97) went 11-16 overall and 4-12 in the SEC.

O’Neill, however, left behind a couple of good, young players, including sophomore guard Brandon Wharton and freshman center/power forward C.J. Black.

Green’s first team went 19-9 in the regular season, finished third in the SEC East at 9-7, and got an at-large bid and No. 8 seed in the NCAAs. It was Tennessee’s first NCAA appearance in nine years.

The Vols played No. 9 Illinois State and left with an 82-81 overtime loss. Wharton led the Vols with 23 points and Black had 18 points and six rebounds. UT’s other starters were Torrey Harris at center, Rashard Lee at forward, and Tony Harris at point guard. Freshman Isiah Victor started at forward earlier the season.

Tennessee reached the NCAA second round in 1999 with much of the same lineup – except for freshman Vincent Yarbrough of Cleveland (Tennessee) High School moving in as a starting forward/wing.

The Vols won the SEC East with a 12-4 record and were seeded No. 4 in the NCAAs. After beating No. 13 seed Delaware 62-52 in the first round, UT was upset by No. 9 Southwest Missouri State in the second round, 81-51.

In 1999-2000, Green had another imposing roster: Harris and Jon Higgins at guard, Black at center, and Victor, Yarbrough, Marcus Haislip and Ron Slay at forwards.

Tennessee was seeded No. 4 in the NCAAs after going 24-6 in the regular season and winning the SEC East at 12-4.

The Vols drew No. 13 seed Louisiana-Lafayette in the 2000 NCAA opener. Slay came off the bench and scored 15 on 6-of-8 shooting and Harris added 15 despite 4-of-14 shooting as UT posted a 63-58 victory. Black added 14 points, making 10-of-10 free throws.

Next for the Vols was No. 5 seed Connecticut, which was hampered by an ankle injury to its top player, point guard Khalid El-Amin. Harris had 18 points, Yarbrough 14 and Black 13 in the Vols’ 65-51 win. El-Amin played only 13 minutes and scored three points. UConn’s 51 points was a season low.

In the Sweet 16 game, Tennessee faced No. 8 seed North Carolina. The Vols led by nine in the first half and were up by six late in the game, but the team faded down the stretch in a 74-69 loss. Black, who played at Chattanooga Brainerd High School, led UT with 17 points and five rebounds in his final game for Tennessee.

Guard Joseph Forte led North Carolina with 22 points and center Brendan Haywood had 11. The Tar Heels beat Tulsa 74-69 in the regional finals for a berth in the Final Four, where they lost to Florida, 71-59.

Green had the Vols back in the NCAAs in 2001 as a No. 8 seed, but they lost to No. 9 seed Charlotte, 70-63, in the opener. The loss produced some March Madness among the higher-ups at Tennessee, in particular then-school president J. Wade Gilley. Green was fired not long after the loss to Charlotte.

Tennessee turned to Buzz Peterson as its next coach. Peterson had five years of experience as a head coach – four at Appalachian State and one at Tulsa, which he led to the 2001 NIT championship. Peterson coached the Vols for four seasons and posted a 61-59 record with two NIT appearances (both first-round losses) and no NCAA bids. He was fired in mid-March, 2005.

Bruce Pearl era

Bruce Pearl was hired by Tennessee from Wisconsin-Milwaukee and brought a Mears-like showmanship to Knoxville.

While getting fans to fill Thompson-Boling Arena, Pearl led the Vols to a school-record six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the 2008 SEC regular-season title, three SEC East Division titles, a No. 1 national ranking (AP in 2008), and the school’s only NCAA Elite Eight appearance (2010).

His early years at Tennessee coincided with the rise of UT fan favorites Chris Lofton (2004-08) and Wayne Chism (2006-10).

Tennessee twice reached NCAA Sweet 16s with Lofton and Chism on the roster. The Vols lost to Ohio State 85-84 in 2007, and the next year lost to Louisville 79-60. The 2007-08 team won the SEC East title (14-2) and set a school record for victories in a season (31-5). Starters in their Sweet 16 run were Tyler Smith and Chism at forwards and Lofton, JaJuan Smith, and J.P. Prince at guards.

Pearl’s next-to-last team at Tennessee, in 2009-10, made the biggest run in NCAA history. It was the year before Pearl was fired in March of 2011 amid NCAA allegations of unethical conduct. Pearl, now the head coach at Auburn, received a three-year “show-cause penalty” from the NCAA and was out of college basketball for three years.

Starters for the 2010 NCAA tournament team were Bobby Maze at point guard, Prince and Scotty Hopson at guards/wings, Chism at power forward and Brian Williams at low post.

The Vols tied for third in the SEC East (11-5) and entered the NCAAs as a No. 6 seed against No. 11 San Diego State. Backup guard Melvin Goins came off the bench and led the Vols with 15 points – hitting a 3-pointer with 19 seconds for a four-point lead – as Tennessee posted a 62-59 first-round victory.

UT next played No. 14 seed Ohio, which upset No. 3 seed Georgetown 97-83 in the opening round. The Vols built an 11-point halftime lead and pulled away for an 83-69 win. Prince had 18 points, Hopson 17, and Cameron Tatum 11 off the bench.

Tennessee went to St. Louis the next week for its Sweet 16 game against No. 2 seed Ohio State. With the Vols leading by three in the closing seconds, Prince blocked a desperation 3-point attempt by Evan Turner and the Vols won 76-73. Chism led UT with 22 points and 11 rebounds.

“Now we’re going to see if we can live every kid’s dream,” Pearl said of the Elite Eight game.

The Vols played No. 5 seed Michigan State, and trailing by eight late in the game, rallied to tie 69-69 on a free throw by Hopson, who missed the second shot of a one-and-bonus situation. Michigan State’s Raymar Morgan had an open layup with 1.6 seconds left but was fouled by Prince. Morgan made the first, missed the second intentionally and Prince missed a half-court heave at the buzzer.

“This one won’t go away, forever,” Pearl said.

With the NCAA investigation looming, Pearl and the Vols were back in the 2011 NCAAs as a No. 9 seed. They lost to No. 8 Michigan 75-45, and Pearl was fired three days later.

Cuonzo Martin era

Pearl was a tough act to follow for Cuonzo Martin, who was hired by Tennessee from Missouri State. The former Purdue and NBA guard/forward lacked Pearl’s charisma and charm, and the Vol Nation didn’t exactly buy in.

After leading the Vols to NIT bids in 2012 and ’13, Martin’s 2013-14 team went 21-12 in the regular season, 11-7 for fourth in the SEC, and got in the NCAA Tournament as one of the four play-in teams in the expanded 68-team bracket.

UT and Iowa were both seeded No. 11. The Vols’ starting lineup had Jordan McRae, Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson at guards and Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon at forwards. Richardson had 20 points and the Vols outscored Iowa 14-1 in overtime for a 78-65 win.

Tennessee then upset No. 6 seed Massachusetts 86-67 in its round-of-64 game. The Vols dominated the frontcourt with Maymon getting 26 points and 14 rebounds and Stokes getting 11 points and 11 rebounds.

After an 83-63 win over No. 14 seed Mercer, Tennessee was back in the Sweet 16 against No. 2 seed Michigan. The Vols trailed by 15 points midway through the second half and stormed back, cutting the deficit to one with possession to win at the end. Stokes, however, was called for an offensive foul, and Michigan hit a free throw for a 73-71 win.

Martin stunned the UT administration in mid-April when he announced he was leaving for the head coaching job at California. After three seasons with the Golden Bears, Martin took the head coaching job at Missouri – back in the SEC competing against the Vols.

Tennessee, meanwhile, hired Tyndall from Southern Miss. Tyndall coached the Vols to a 16-16 record with a depleted roster, and was fired March 27, 2015 when Tennessee learned of the NCAA investigation into his coaching days at Southern Miss.

UT administrators seized the opportunity. Barnes was there waiting. And three seasons later, the fired Texas coach might be national coach of the year at Tennessee.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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