By Jimmy Hyams
At some point Monday, Tennessee will likely be ranked No. 1 in the AP poll or coaches’ poll – or both.
Duke was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll last week but lost to Syracuse before beating No. 4 Virginia.
Michigan was ranked No. 2 in the AP poll last week but lost to unranked Wisconsin.
Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll but lost to Duke.
With Tennessee’s narrow win over Alabama, that should clear the path for the Vols (15-1) to jump from No. 3 to the top spot in at least one poll.
But Tennessee coach Rick Barnes doesn’t seem to care.
“I don’t think anything about it,’’ Barnes said when asked about his team possibly moving to No. 1. “We’re going to be in a lot of games like this whether we are ranked one, 21 or 41.’’
Vol junior Grant Williams echoed those sentiments.
“It would be nice and our fans would love it, but for us, we’ve just got to focus on each other,’’ Williams said.
While Barnes and Williams downplay it, ascending to No. 1 for UT does matter.
Maybe not for some of the blue bloods in the game – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas – but it does for a program like Tennessee.
Before the 2016-17 season, the Vols were picked 13th in the media preseason SEC poll. The two years prior, the Vols had a combined record of 31-35, 14-22 in the SEC. Tennessee was battling just to get a berth in the NIT.
This is a school that has never been to the Final Four in men’s hoops and has reached the No. 1 spot just once in history.
In the past 35 years, here are five significant events in men’s basketball: Beating No. 1 Kansas with four suspended players, Chris Lofton hitting a 3 over Kevin Durant to upset Texas in 2007, winning the SEC in 2018 and 2008.
And ascending to the No. 1 spot in 2008 after an epic win over No. 1 Memphis.
Being ranked No. 1 tells you about where this program has come under Barnes.
It can help in recruiting and national interest. It can help in attendance and financial support. And, this year, it can help the national outlook of the SEC.
I don’t blame Barnes for downplaying the rankings. The ultimate goal is the Final Four and a national title.
But I wouldn’t dismiss what this team has done, either. It has gone 16-1 against a difficult schedule and won 12 in a row for the first time since 1977.
“The guys that are playing right now, they’ve built this thing,’’ Barnes said. “They’ve built it. … Is it nice to be ranked? Of course. The attention that comes with your program, it filters down to every aspect of your program. You have to deal with it and handle it.
“How you do that is by staying focused on what’s at hand and that’s playing basketball. You can’t let the outside noise (affect you). You don’t come unraveled, you stay focused on the task at hand.’’
After Tennessee earned the No. 1 ranking with a win over Memphis in 2008, it lost the next week to 18th-ranked Vanderbilt to fall out of the top spot.
That could be a valuable lesson for this team, which plays at Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
Williams admits it will be hard not to know where UT is ranked late Monday morning. But he added this: “Every team in the top five is a No. 1 team. Every team in the top 25 might potentially get up there, so it’s a long season. It doesn’t matter where you are at the halfway part, it’s where you’re at at the end.’’
But wouldn’t being ranked No. 1 be a significant achievement?
“It would be significant,’’ Williams said. “It would be nice for the program to say we’ve done it again. It’s all about keeping it there and letting it last.
“For me, I’ve always thought my goal is to hang banners rather than worry about halfway through the season, and if we get caught up in that, we’re not going to be doing what our goals are.’’