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Friday, January 11, 2008

Volunteer State is new capital of men's hoops

Volunteer State is new capital of men's hoops
Sporting News
Posted: January 8, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- To the east, Bruce Pearl is spreading school pride on Rocky Top, sporting a fresh orange suit and taking his eighth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers to new heights.

To the west, John Calipari is perched on the banks of the Mississippi River, trying to keep his No. 2 Memphis Tigers perfect.

And halfway between the nearly 400 miles of rolling mountains, tobacco fields and blue chip recruits that separate Memphis and Knoxville, Kevin Stallings quietly has turned his 13th-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores into the latest stars of Music City.

Welcome to the Volunteer State, making a case for Tennessee as the new home of men's college basketball.

"You can talk about tobacco road in the Carolinas, and you can talk about Indiana and Kentucky all you want, you're not going to find a more competitive basketball state than Tennessee right now," Pearl said. "The state of Tennessee defines what college basketball is all about."

Tennessee is the only state with three teams ranked in The Associated Press Top 25, let alone the top 15. These three schools were among the final 16 playing last March -- Memphis (13-0) made it to the regional finals, while Vanderbilt (15-0) and Tennessee (12-1) were each a basket away from joining the Tigers.

All not only hope to be playing deep into the NCAA tournament this season, they have national title aspirations.

"I think we all have a chance to get to the Final Four," Calipari said. "Right now, you don't even need to leave Tennessee to find the best basketball in the country."

For years, the college basketball landscape was controlled by states like North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana. Top-ranked North Carolina now has only Duke for company in the rankings. In the Bluegrass State, Kentucky and Louisville have sputtered, and the power seems to have shifted.

Make room for Tennessee.

"We're enjoying it," Stallings said. "I've always felt this state had a huge talent pool."

It has, but high school stars haven't always stayed.

Billy Donovan, for instance, led Florida to consecutive national titles with a pair of Tennessee players as starters -- Corey Brewer from Portland, and Lee Humphrey from Maryville.

One of the first high-profile recruits Pearl tried to bring to Tennessee was Brandon Wright, a Nashville native who ultimately went to North Carolina and turned pro a year later. Trying to recruit Wright seemed like a lost cause for Pearl.

"He wasn't disrespectful at all, but there was no way he could have stayed," Pearl said. "I think those days are gone. I think the best players in the state are going to give us all a strong look. They don't feel like they have to leave anymore."

Don't think these schools, just because they're flourishing, are rooting for one another. Yes, all three coaches say there's mutual respect, but they've had heated battles, too.

Calipari and Pearl have tussled over recruits, often trying to sign a star player even after he's said where he wants to go.

Pearl pulls his signature orange suit from the closet only against select opponents. Vanderbilt made that list last year.

And there's been dispute over the Memphis-Tennessee game, which alternates between schools each season. Calipari wants it in a neutral city, like Nashville, to keep Pearl and the Vols from getting exposure in his western third of the state.

"You could call it the Governor's Cup," Calipari said last month.

The Vols are nestled on the edge of the Smoky Mountains, in a campus town. The Tigers sit atop the Mississippi Delta in Memphis, anchoring a region that breeds top recruits and lives for basketball. And Vanderbilt is a small, private university that relies on out-of-state and international players.

"Each school has a different personality," Vanderbilt guard Shan Foster said. "It's like none of us want to be the same as the other."

They differ on court, too.

Memphis goes physical, letting the offense come from isolating players for penetration. Vanderbilt has the shooters, and it's tough to get players into the academic-minded university. Pearl has Tennessee running with a quick-shot offense to go along with its full-court pressure.

Tennessee and Memphis have strong followings in the state, while Vanderbilt often is overshadowed.

"I think that sometimes people forget Vanderbilt is in Tennessee," said Commodores guard Keegan Bell, who grew up in Hazel Green, Ala., just over the Tennessee border. "We're the forgotten school."

Good basketball doesn't stop with the big three in Tennessee

Belmont has been to the NCAA tournament two straight years. East Tennessee State made the tournament four consecutive years from 1989-92, and in 2003 and 2004.

Tennessee State upset Illinois on the road in December, and Tennessee-Martin's Lester Hudson recorded a rare quadruple-double against Central Baptist earlier this season when he had 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals.

Oh, and the coach who has won the most college basketball games calls Tennessee home.

Don't think Pat Summitt, who has led the Lady Vols to seven national titles, hasn't noticed the men catching up to her.

"We've got something special going on right now in Tennessee," Summitt said. "It's the place to be."

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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