Peterson got to take over a 2001-02 roster that wasn’t going to enter the season ranked – not after the horrid way they closed 2000-01 – but did have some serious talent. Peterson’s first roster included Vincent Yarbrough and Marcus Haislip (a pair of future NBA lottery picks), Jon Higgins (junior, top 100 recruit), Brandon Crump (freshman, top 100 recruit), Ron Slay (Ron Slay), and Derek Stribling (forgotten top 100 recruit). I wouldn’t call it deep, but it had serious top-end talent. A reasonable comparison (two lottery picks, three top 100 recruits, and mild amounts of bench talent) in the most recent full season would’ve been like a slightly lesser Florida, a team that survived the loss of their best player to get a 7 seed and finish in the KenPom top 40. A perfectly rational expectation for Year One of Buzz Peterson would’ve been an NCAA Tournament bid, something like a 7-10 seed, and a solid SEC performance.
Peterson’s first run at Tennessee began in a questionable fashion: a wobbly 72-63 win over Tennessee Tech (where Tennessee trailed for a big chunk of the first 25 minutes) was immediately followed by an 11-point loss to a very good Marquette team. A loss to St. John’s came shortly after. For the first time since 1995, Tennessee lost to Memphis, 71-69. Tennessee did have a nice road win over a fine enough SMU team, but they’d enter Louisville on December 20 with a 5-3 record and a fairly serious need of a good win.
On the other sideline, Louisville was also in the midst of a new coach’s first season. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
After a failed four-year stint with the Boston Celtics, Rick Pitino crawled back to college basketball. Not only did he come back to college, he came back to the state of Kentucky. The Wildcats were doing well enough with Tubby Smith on their side. Louisville, however, had just undergone a legend’s retirement. Denny Crum called it a career after 30 years on the sidelines in Louisville. The guy whose last college coaching experience ended in a national championship with Louisville’s main rival made as much sense as anything else.
Louisville’s start had been a tad less shaky than Tennessee’s. The Cardinals were demolished by an excellent Oregon team in November, then proceeded to rip off six wins in a row leading up to December 20. That run peaked with a 66-61 win over an Ohio State team that eventually made the NCAA Tournament as a 4 seed. The vibes were good. Everything was rolling. Pitino was capital-B Back.
One team needed this more than the other did. Little did Tennessee know how nine games into a new coach’s tenure, they’d see everything they’d ever need to.
NEXT PAGE: A different kind of tension