Vols showed chemistry that KU didn't
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- After it was over, and he'd led truncated Tennessee to a stunning 76-68 upset of No. 1 Kansas, Bruce Pearl darted around the Thompson-Boling Arena court handing out hugs. Then he sought out the Volunteers mascot and helped him wave a giant orange "T" flag.
Just a few days earlier, it looked like Pearl and his team might have to raise a white flag on the rest of the season. But on a topsy-turvy Sunday, everything you thought you knew changed.
Tennessee's patchwork lineup of walk-ons and unknowns outplayed the best team in the nation. Meanwhile, Jayhawks coach Bill Self bemoaned his team's lack of identity while longing for the Volunteers' cohesiveness.
"It's pretty amazing what chemistry can do," Pearl said.
This game was like an outlandish lab experiment that somehow resulted in a breakthrough instead of an explosion. Pearl has only six scholarship players left after four key contributors were arrested New Year's Day on gun and drug charges; all-SEC senior Tyler Smith was kicked off the team Friday, while the other three remain suspended indefinitely.
Hardly anybody thought this new-look Tennessee team could hang with Kansas, which has been ranked No. 1 all season. Except the players still wearing orange.
"The [suspensions] forced us to be together," sophomore swingman Renaldo Woolridge said. "That first practice when we had few guys in there seemed kind of funny. But the next practice seemed more natural, and now we just click. We bought into the family concept."
Pearl needed all available friends and relatives on Sunday. His best big man, Wayne Chism, and his top perimeter defender, J.P. Prince, got into early foul trouble and played a combined 33 minutes. Each picked up his fourth foul within a six-second span early in the second half.
"It was like, 'How am I going to do this now?'" Pearl said.
He did it by getting production from the most unlikely sources. At various points, Pearl put two walk-ons and inexperienced freshman Kenny Hall on the floor at the same time. How many times has the team practiced together with those loony lineups?
The stars have to be aligned like that in order to beat the No. 1 team in the country when you're so short-handed.” -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl
"Sometimes in practice we go through situations like that," guard Scotty Hopson said. "But not many."
And yet it worked. Woolridge drilled four 3-pointers, including three straight in one first-half barrage. Sparingly used before the suspensions, Woolridge had made only seven 3s all season before banking his first one in from the top of the key.
"I just kind of shrugged my shoulders," said Woolridge, who tied a career high in points (14) and set a high in minutes (34). "I knew it would be one of those halves where everything would feel good."
Pearl also stole 45 total minutes from walk-ons Skylar McBee, Josh Bone and his son, Steven. Bone drilled his first 3 of the year in the second half, while the younger Pearl provided good defense, grabbing three rebounds and taking a crucial charge.
McBee, who turned down scholarships at Marshall, Santa Clara and Winthrop last year to play for his home-state school, sank the biggest shot of the game. His off-balance 3-pointer nipped the shot-clock horn and pushed the Volunteers ahead by six with 36 seconds left.
"We obviously hit some very special shots," Pearl said. "The stars have to be aligned like that in order to beat the No. 1 team in the country when you're so short-handed."
It was Kansas that looked star-crossed.
Pearl installed a zone defense just this week and also employed a man-to-man disguised as a zone. His goal was to deny Jayhawks big man Cole Aldrich looks down low while contesting 3-point shots and making Kansas win with midrange jumpers.
The Jayhawks, who came in shooting 51 percent for the season, knocked down just 7 of 27 3-point attempts and 37.7 percent overall. Aldrich had only seven points on five shots, and leading scorer Xavier Henry was held to 10 points and only two field goal attempts in the second half.
Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze outplayed his more ballyhooed counterpart and childhood friend Sherron Collins. Collins had 22 points but was just 7-of-20 from the floor and 2-for-10 on 3s; Maze chipped in the best overall line (16 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) of his career.
Self had worried about his team's mindset even as it raced out to a 14-0 start to the season. And now the Jayhawks will enter Big 12 play off two straight subpar performances. Kansas shot just 36.7 percent while barely surviving Cornell last week at home.
No sane person would trade Self's roster for the remnants of Pearl's program. Self certainly doesn't want his players to get arrested, and Kansas still has a much brighter outlook for the rest of the season. But Self -- who didn't open his locker room for nearly an hour after the game -- would like to see some of the passion and closeness that Pearl's club showed on Sunday.
"I don't think Tennessee was a team until this past week," Self said. "I don't think Kansas is a team yet. Usually, things occur to allow your guys to really become a team. Sometimes they are negative things, sometimes they are positive things. We haven't gotten it done yet."
The Volunteers scored one of their biggest wins in years after a tumultuous 10-day period. They celebrated like they had won a title, with players leaping on the scorer's table and atop chairs on both sidelines, popping their jerseys for the giddy crowd.
"That was just a release after all the things we'd been through," Maze said.
It remains to be seen whether they can keep thriving with such a small roster. But on a topsy-turvy day, Tennessee had found a flag worth rallying around.
Brian Bennett is a college sports writer for ESPN.com.
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