An undermanned Tennessee Volunteers team knocked the Kansas Jayhawks from the ranks of the undefeated Sunday, 76-68. That win was the first time Tennessee has beaten the number one team in the country on their home court. This comes at a time when nothing but bad things have been said about Tennessee since four players were arrested for gun and drug possession charges on New Years Day. With four players suspended and being down to only six scholarship players, they managed to pull off the upset. Tennessee was led by a walk-on freshman, Skylar McBee, who hit the game’s most crucial shot. With a three-point lead and less than a minute to go, McBee hit a three-pointer as the shot clock expired to give the Volunteers a six-point lead that they would not relinquish.
The loss of their teammates has changed the chemistry of the team and has helped them come together. Tennessee starts their conference schedule on Thursday against Auburn and are off to a 12-2 start. If they can keep playing as a team and playing with the same kind of intensity throughout the season, they can rival Kentucky as the team to beat in the SEC. Bruce Pearl joined 790 The Zone in Atlanta to talk about the team showing a lot of grit in the win against Kansas, what he told the team prior to the Kansas game, the difference of Skylar McBee making the shot and what a difference in him, and how he calls a meeting for his team when he gets news like what happened on New Years day.
On the team showing a lot of grit in the win against Kansas:
“Thank you that is why you play the game. Obviously the stars were aligned for us and we feel very, very blessed to have gone into that game shorthanded and found a way to stick together… First time we have beat the number one team in the country in Thompson-Boling Arena.”
On what he told the team prior to the Kansas game:
“Two things. One, I am the same when we are playing the number one team in the country than when you are playing a preseason exhibition game. I am the same. Maybe I am not the same on the inside but on the outside I am as intense and I am as passionate as ever so the speech is the same. But in the end, I did bring them together when we came on the floor and I said here is the deal; I said that we may be the only ones in this building that think we have a chance to win this basketball game. I said regardless of what happens out there, the good the bad and the ugly, if we stay together… I said that I want you guys to be positive to each other out there. Don’t get on each other like you sometimes would normally do. In two and a half hours we are going to be celebrating the biggest win in the history of the University of Tennessee Basketball.”
On the difference of Skylar McBee making the shot and what a difference in him:
“Well Steak (Shapiro) I think the big thing is this. Everybody goes to practice and everybody has a coach and everybody finishes practice and everybody is at the same pace. It is eleven o’clock at night on a cold winter in the hills of east Tennessee and the sun is asking his father, Dad can we go down to the gym and get some shots? And when other kids are out there going to the movies and doing different things that kid is in the gym going three, two, one. It is every kid’s dream to do that and this kid has a chance to live that dream and the question that I asked the team is, did Skylar feel like that ball had to go in? The answer is, yes, because of the hours and the commitment that he put in and it was for all of the pain and all the sacrifice and all of the discipline. So yes it was worth the sacrifice.”
On Skylar McBee being the hardest worker on the team:
“He is the hardest worker, as a freshman walk-on he is the hardest worker.”
On why Skylar chose to walk-on at Tennessee instead of taking other offers:
“Just a local boy growing up being a Vol fan and I didn’t have a scholarship this year and he knew that he would be on scholarship at some point at the University of Tennessee. We call him a walk-on because he is paying for his own way but he knew at some point we would scholarship him. I can say it will be some point shortly.”
On his son, Steven, having a good game:
“How about that? It was fun to be able to grab your kid and throw him in the game against Kansas and go out there and guard the Morris Twins. He just played like he belonged out there. Defensively, he was physical, he hustled. He got three rebounds, he took a charge. Tied up Collins and ripped it out of his hands and fell down to the ground and called timeout. You know he missed a couple of free throws but it was special. The reason why you are a practice player for three years and don’t get to get the limelight and have to suffer from folks on the message board going, what is he doing here? He can play at this level. Steven could have played at some lower division I school but he wanted to be with his father and he wanted to be able to share moments like that with his dad.”
On how he calls a meeting for his team when he gets news like what happened on New Years day:
“No, the first thing that I do is gather the facts. The first thing I do is allow it to run its course. Our team wasn’t scheduled to meet until the next day and that is where we met and we visited the subject briefly because it needed to be addressed. But what really needed to be addressed is what was left? What was next? What we have got to do as a team and so I spent a great deal of time over the last two weeks dealing with the four players that have been suspended. Lots of times on and off. On the phones, in my office, in meetings. They were separated immediately from the rest of the team because on January 1, we had a different team and those guys that were remaining had to find a way to come together. It was a difficult call because as a father of these kids I am responsible and accountable. So when those guys messed up, I messed up and I apologize for it. I am embarrassed by it and I have got what happened in perspective. These guys were not on their way to go committing a crime. They made some bad decisions. They had weapons in the car and one of the players had some marijuana on them. Those guys are not going to play. Tyler [Smith] is suspended for the whole season and has apologized for putting a team in a situation that they did not need to be in. The rest of it will come out here shortly. We will treat them fairly by not treating them exactly the same and we will see what happens.”