Tennessee's all-time starting 5 loaded with once-in-a-generation players
Editor’s note: SDS is selecting an all-time starting 5 for every SEC program, all part of our expanded coverage of March Madness.
There’s a reason the buzz for Tennessee basketball is what it is right now.
History dictates perspective, and for the most part, history hasn’t been too kind to the Vols. And by “history,” I’m referring to the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee hoops made one NCAA Tournament since Bruce Pearl left Knoxville in 2011. And while they made six consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Pearl, the Vols made one Elite Eight and that’s it.
And by “that’s it,” I’m referring to that being it for the history of Tennessee basketball.
Of course there’s excitement about this finally being the year that the Vols make a run. Maybe a month from now we’re talking about the Vols’ surprise season ending with a surprise Final Four berth for the first time.
That’s what’s somewhat fascinating about the Vols’ all-time starting 5. On paper, it’s one of the best in the SEC. But it’s somewhat amazing that the players on this list had such little team success. Combined, they have just 10 NCAA Tournament appearances and 7 NCAA Tournament victories. One player on this list — who happens to be Tennessee’s all-time leading scorer — never even made it to the big dance.
Many would argue that the golden era of Tennessee basketball was in the 1970s with Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. But usually a “golden era” has at least one deep run into the NCAA Tournament. As accomplished as those guys were, they were never even part of a single NCAA Tournament victory.
So yes, saying that Tennessee has a history of winning probably would be an exaggeration because of the lack of postseason success.
But don’t get it twisted. The Vols’ all-time starting 5 is loaded:
PG: Chris Lofton (2005-08)
Can you name Tennessee’s last All-American? Using context clues, hopefully you would guess Lofton. That would be correct. In fact, he was the second 3-time All-American in program history (Bernard King).
Lofton was a revelation for the Vols. A 3-time first-team All-SEC selection, Lofton arrived in Knoxville in the final year of the Buzz Patterson era and stomached a 14-win season, which marked the Vols’ fourth consecutive year of missing the NCAA Tournament. After that, however, Lofton and the Vols took off. With Bruce Pearl at the helm, Lofton guided Tennessee to 3 consecutive top-25 finishes, including a 31-win season his senior year.
Not only did Lofton break Allan Houston’s program record for 3-pointers, he also set the new mark in the SEC. Lofton hit plenty of big shots, but few will forget the one he hit over Kevin Durant to help knock off Texas in December 2006:
By the time Lofton’s illustrious career was winding down at Tennessee, he led the program to its first and last No. 1 ranking 2 weeks before the 2008 NCAA Tournament. He left Knoxville ranked fourth on the Vols’ career scoring list, third in steals and tied for first in games started.
One can debate if Lofton was a true point guard (he had to be on this list), but one can’t debate his toughness. The guy had testicular cancer in college and underwent radiation and successful surgery to remove the tumor.
Lofton is an all-time Tennessee great in every way.
SG: Allan Houston (1990-93)
Pure scorer. That’s what Houston was throughout his Tennessee career from start to finish. Back in the days when superstars like Houston stayed in college all 4 years, one could put up some pretty gaudy career marks. That’s what Houston did.
Houston once scored 43 points in a game as a true freshman:
He still holds Tennessee’s all-time scoring record with 2,801 points (he has an absurd 552-point advantage on second place), he’s the program’s single-season scoring record (806 points) and he ranks second with 23 games of 30-plus points. Not surprisingly, Houston also left school as the Vols’ all-time leader in 3-pointers (Lofton later passed him). Like Lofton, the Kentucky native was a once-in-a-generation player who earned multiple years of All-America accolades.
The only thing that Houston really lacked was the team success. With his dad, Wade Houston, as Tennessee’s head coach, the Vols never made it to the NCAA Tournament while Houston was in Knoxville.
Still, Houston will always be remembered for his prolific scoring ability and his successful 13-year NBA career.
F: Ernie Grunfeld (1974-77)
I could’ve easily gone with Dale Ellis in the spot. Ellis was a 2-time All-American, a 2-time SEC Player of the Year and he’s all over the Tennessee record books. He, like Grunfeld, had his number retired at Tennessee.
So why Grunfeld?
Well, a few reasons. One is that Grunfeld did the little things that didn’t show up in the stat sheet. He was a tough, hard-nosed player who played both ways and made his teammates better. That’s rare for a guy who could light up the scoreboard like he could. And the 2-time All-American was also responsible for the “Ernie and Bernie Show” with Bernard King, which was arguably the most entertaining period in Tennessee basketball history.
Grunfeld, who was impressive in his own right for averaging the most points per game (22.3) ever by a 4-year player at Tennessee, helped maximize the incredible abilities of King. Without Grunfeld, King wouldn’t have even gone to Tennessee. The New York natives struck up a bond that turned into one of the great dynamic duos in college basketball history. They might not have won a national title, but they were both instrumental on and off the court with reshaping Tennessee athletics.
Today’s basketball world might know Grunfeld as one of the NBA’s top general managers of the last couple decades, but in Knoxville, No. 22 is immortalized forever.
F: Bernard King (1975-77)
He’s the GOAT of Tennessee hoops, and I’m not sure there’s any debate. King’s résumé is so insane that it’s hard to see it ever being topped. In 3 years at Tennessee, King accomplished the following things:
- Scored 42 points in college debut
- Tennessee leader in points per game (25.8)
- Tennessee leader in 30-point games (26)
- Tennessee leader in 40-point games (5)
- Tennessee leader in double-doubles (62)
- 2nd in Tennessee history in rebounds (1,004)
- Owns 3 of top 4 scoring per game marks in Tennessee history
- 3-time SEC Player of the Year
- 3-time All-American
Yes, King had a double-double in 62 of his 76 career games. The dude just got buckets:
He finished his career second to only Grunfield in career scoring, which wouldn’t have been the case had King stayed all 4 years at Tennessee. Instead, he left to become the No. 7 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
King then went on to become a Pro Basketball Hall of Fame inductee after he racked up 19,655 points, including the 1983-84 season with the Knicks in which he averaged a league-best 32.9 points per game. Injuries cut his NBA career short, but he still managed to become of the NBA’s best scorers ever.
In 2007, King became the first player in Tennessee history to have his number retired. Perhaps the question isn’t whether King was Tennessee’s best player ever, rather if he was the best player in SEC history.
C: Reggie Johnson (1977-80)
The end of the Bernie and Ernie era meant the beginning of the Johnson era at Tennessee. Johnson became the Vols’ go-to guy after Grunfeld and King moved on to the NBA, averaging 21.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore. His 696 points that year set a single-season Tennessee record. A year later, Johnson set the program’s single-season record for field goals.
A relatively undersized center at 6-9, 205 pounds, Johnson still did everything and more to become one of the Tennessee’s all-time greats.
He finished his career as the program’s second all-time leading scorer (now fifth) and the fourth all-time leading rebounder (now sixth). In his 4 seasons in Knoxville, Johnson averaged 18.3 points and 8 rebounds per game. Twice he earned All-America honors and 3 times he earned first-team All-SEC honors. Johnson helped the Vols reach the NCAA Tournament three different times.
Johnson might not have had the NBA career that Houston or King did, but his place as one of Tennessee’s greats isn’t in question.