College Sports

Tennessee hoops making a name

Boy, when did Tennessee start to rival North Carolina as the nation's best basketball state?

The state's flagship university grabbed the No. 1 spot for the first time in 99 years at the beginning of the week and got to enjoy it for two days. Tennessee, after beating previous No. 1 Memphis, traveled to Vanderbilt and lost 72-69, ensuring the Volunteers will drop out of the top spot on Monday assuming no other major upsets happen.

"We said all along that (the ranking) was nice but we have to focus on winning the SEC championship," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "It got a little harder, but we're still in good shape."

The No. 18 Commodores (24-4, 9-4 SEC) scored their fourth straight win over a No. 1 opponent and at least temporarily denied Tennessee (25-3, 11-2) winning the SEC regular-season title. With only three games left to play and Kentucky and Mississippi State (each 10-3) just behind, the Vols aren't required to win out, but it would give them a lot more breathing room.

Tennessee hosts the Wildcats (16-10, 10-3) on Sunday. A win gives them at least a tie for the SEC East title.

Mississippi State (19-8) is running away with the SEC West, clinching a tie for the the title two days ago when Alabama beat second-place Arkansas. The main story in the rest of the West seems to be who's going to separate and fall to the bottom, since the last four teams are all 4-9.

• BILLYBALL: Left for dead after an awful start that included losses to Gardner-Webb, UAB and San Diego, Kentucky has picked up the pace. A big reason -- the 'Cats quit trying to play the way they're used to and began applying the basic tenets of coach Billy Gillispie's mindset.

A coach who built his reputation on tough defense and teams that won by grit, not style, Gillispie had to un-teach Kentucky's players years of letting their guards run the show and get everybody to play D. An 81-70 loss to Florida on Jan. 19 left the Wildcats 1-2 in the league -- they've gone 9-1 since.

"I don't know if it was everybody listening or anything like that," Gillispie said. "It just seemed like once we got that first win, the light seemed to come on."

Kentucky has only allowed 63.2 points per game during the stretch, the only hiccup a 93-point disaster in the streak's only loss, a 41-point shellacking at Vanderbilt. But other than that, the high Kentucky allowed was 70 and it's gotten itself back on the NCAA tournament bubble.

• WHO'S IT GONNA BE?: The mystery surrounding South Carolina's soon-to-be-open coaching job has been joined by the same situation at LSU. Once Butch Pierre finishes up his interim season (the Tigers are 3-3 under him), who will LSU go after?

Some of the same names that popped up in USC's search have hit at LSU, most notably former Florida assistant Anthony Grant. Grant's former boss, Billy Donovan, said the biggest thing each school has to overcome is its reputation as a football-first athletic department.

"In the South, the passionate sport is football," Donovan said. "That's never-changing. But that has no bearing on a program being successful."

Donovan knows first-hand, taking over at Florida when the Steve Spurrier reign of Gator football was in effect. But he quietly built a national power and Florida became excellent in each sport, also putting the influence on some of their non-revenue programs.

"The baseball team three years ago played for a championship, soccer has won a championship," Donovan said. "The mix of a job is the combination of the relationship between a coach and the administration. That's created by our support for the University of Florida."

• FINALLY IN FEBRUARY: Florida beat Georgia two nights ago to get itself off the bubble of having a poor late-season run. The Gators (21-7, 8-5) seem to have an NCAA tournament berth locked up.

They had lost three straight on the road and were 2-4 this month.

• ELITE COMPANY: Reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year Steven Hill reached the 300-block plateau during his Razorbacks' loss to Alabama. The only others to do it were Georgia's Lavon Mercer, Auburn's Kyle Davis and LSU's Shaquille O'Neal.

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