Marvin West: Best Tennessee Basketball Teams
Baseball: Tony Vitello’s over-the-wall bashers own the Tennessee sports spotlight. Their record is 40-4 with 103 homers.
Soccer: Tennessee exceeded expectations in the NFL Draft. The estimated contract value for five volumes is $24 million.
Basketball: Surprisingly, it persists. The early exit from the NCAA Tournament, unsurprisingly, was six weeks ago but Rick Barnes remains wide awake. The coach is trying to get his squad back. Six Flights departed.
Morning talks at Hardee’s in Union County are most often about the weather, politics, the rebuilding of Highway 33 and the state of the okra. Only the rising cost of living threatens the no-blasphemy agreement.
It was a little disconcerting to find out about Tennessee’s basketball encroachment. The focus was not on Barnes’ traditional tournament dropsy or the connection between NIL money and the transfer portal or even replacement recruiting.
The near-dispute was over the quality of recent volunteers and which team was the best ever in Big Orange Country.
Luckily I arrived late, but being a resident genius I was asked to step in as a moderator. Take-out coffee saved me.
The question has not gone away. Which Tennessee team was really the best?
Me and my bike still had a log route the year John Mauer’s top team won an SEC title. I also missed the best of Emmett Lowery. Later, as a UT student, I saw a lot at Alumni Memorial Gymnasium. I remain appalled that Tennessee lost in 1954 with Carl Widseth, Ed Wiener, Herman Thompson, Bill Lovelace and Buddy Cruze.
The “best” question was still there. Research has become necessary. This led to the formation of a group of expert consultants, old Vol Hank Bertelkamp, not quite so old Vol Kenny Coulter, relatively young former Vol Lloyd Richardson and famous Vol historians Bud Ford and Tom Mattingly. I accepted a self-nomination as president.
Keep in mind basketball is older than me. It dates back to 1891. James Naismith installed the famous peach baskets at the International YMCA Training School, now known as Springfield (Mass.) College. Seventeen years later, the game has come to Tennessee.
Our “best” panel skipped the era of jumping through the middle after every goal. We did not take seriously the period when Jellico YMCA, Knoxville High School and Johnson Bible College provided opposition. We noted that football coach Zora G. Clevenger also coached basketball for a few seasons. His 1916 team went 12-0.
In more modern times, Bertelkamp averaged 14.3 points per game in 1952-53. Coulter averaged 14 in 1958-59. Richardson played in the early 1970s, during the era of Jimmy England, Don Johnson, Mike Edwards and Len Kosmalski. Lloyd couldn’t shoot that much.
The panel went straight to the point. He compared the best teams of Ray Mears, Don DeVoe, Jerry Green, Bruce Pearl and Barnes. The panelists voted 1-2-3. The results were validated by Sarah.
The 1976-77 team won. To my surprise, the vote was not tight.
Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld respected each other and were totally unselfish. With just one basketball, they produced great numbers. Bernard led the SEC with an average of 25.8 points. Ernie G. scored 22.8, Mike Jackson 15.4, Reggie Johnson 11. Johnny Darden contributed 5.6 and plenty of assists. King led the league in rebounding with 14.2.
The team went 22-6 against a deliberately tough schedule – Duke, San Francisco and UCLA were 50% in losses. Mears thought fierce competition would help come tournament time. This was not the case. Syracuse sent the Vols home.
Tennessee won that SEC Championship with 16-2. Ah yes, we remember it well.
Panelists said 2007-08 team was second-best, 31-5 overall, 14-2 as SEC champion, Sweet Sixteen in tournament, No. 5 in final AP poll .
Pearl and I thought the key players were Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and JP Prince. Jordan Howell was captain.
Tennessee started the year ranked 7th but was eliminated by Texas. The Vols went 11 straight, lost at Kentucky, but defeated the next nine foes, including No. 1 Memphis in Memphis. The polls went orange.
Some said it was the biggest win in Tennessee basketball history.
The Vols couldn’t handle the celebration and the pats on the back. They lost to Vanderbilt, rebounded to Kentucky, won one and lost one in the SEC Tournament and won twice in the NCAA. Louisville inflicted considerable upheaval.
My favorite team, 1966-67, was very good but not the best. He got third place. He finished 21-7, 15-3 in the SEC, No. 8 in the latest AP poll.
Mears had enjoyed considerable success over the previous four years. He improved significantly as a coach when Ron Widby became a senior. Ron was a local talent, Fulton High School, multi-talented, unwilling to lose.
Widby led the SEC with 22.1 points plus eight and a half rebounds per game. Tom Boerwinkle averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds and generally tolerated Stu Aberdeen dragging him down with a broom. Bill Justus averaged 11 points and Tom Hendrix 10. Billy Hann was an excellent point guard.
In my mind, this tight-knit collection became Tennessee’s first major team. The unforgettable performance was a three-overtime win at Mississippi State, the third-best UT game I’ve ever seen. This season finale won the league crown.
“We were picked fifth or sixth pre-season, but we were confident,” Widby recalled. “I told Marvin he was wrong, that we were going to win the championship.”
Justus was a witness.
“Ron made the comment that we were going to win the SEC. I remember thinking he had gone crazy.
Widby had 35 points and nine rebounds in this dramatic and incredibly tense game in Starkville. Indeed, he simply refused to lose. He scored 10 in a row in overtime. Justus hit the decisive free throws.
Widby oversaw shoving me, fully clothed, into a cold shower as punishment for my lack of faith in November. Newspaper editor Ralph Millett found this very funny and replaced my Kmart suit.
FYI: Soon the panel will select the top 25 players.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com