December 30, 2008

Pearl, crowds make kissing obsolete

Once upon a time in UT basketball history, say roughly four years ago B.B. (Before Bruce), Tennessee needed the "Kiss Cam," free food and any other promotion that pulled the attention of fans scattered throughout Thompson-Boling Arena to much more than the product on the hardwood.

On Monday, an unseasonably warm night during an economically tough holiday season against an opponent amidst an identity crisis, the Volunteers showed in the fourth year of Bruce Pearl's resurrection project that it's time to abolish the kiss cam. Though still capable of entertaining with its unsuspecting participants and readymade for a Lane Kiffin-Layla Kiffin moment perhaps in the next couple of months, the "Kiss Cam" has run its course because Tennessee basketball simply is too good for it.

The Vols packed nearly 22,000 into the Boling Alley for this contest against Louisiana (as it wishes to be known) or Louisiana-Lafayette as its slightly more widely known. The result was an 89-62 beatdown of the Cajuns (it's unclear if they're still Ragin') that featured thrills and a breathtaking spill. So celebrate by going celibate against the big pucker.

"I think it's awesome, and I think it says a lot about the passion of Tennessee fans," said Pearl, who's turned Tennessee basketball into an event, a hardwood tent revival that occasionally features fans laying hands on players as they wind through the aisles toward the court. "What can we do? What can we do to show appreciation? So tonight, after the game I gave a very brief locker room speech, and our guys all signed autographs, in fact I think they might still be here signing autographs to 20,000 people and making themselves available to 20,000 fans as our way of saying thanks."

The spring semester is still two weeks away at UT, and parking on The Hill never has been easier. Yet fans peppered every row of TBA, all the way up above the rafters where Pearl keeps adding NCAA Tournament banners. Officially 21,863 through the turnstiles for Lafayette on Dec. 29? That used to constitute a good month of attendance or incredibly creative promotional ploys by UT's savvy marketing department. Not to mention popcorn sales. Now the Vols have strung together 37 consecutive wins at home, easily a school record, and despite some flaws that Pearl continues to address, seem capable of taking down college basketball's best anytime at home.

"(Monday's) crowd with no students on campus is a testament to our great fans," said athletics director Mike Hamilton, the man who brought Vols fans entertaining and meaningful December basketball four years ago, "coach Pearl's incredible work in the community and the intensity with which our guys play."

The players credit the fans. And after this game, they attempted to show them as much. Pearl's postgame remarks were brief; the Cajuns should've been handled easily; concerns centered on the health of surging junior forward Wayne Chism, who had 18 points and 15 rebounds before a nasty spill along the press row baseline forced him to UT Medical Center for precautionary evaluations; and Pearl's incessant, if not masochistic barnstorming takes the Vols Saturday to defending national champion Kansas.

"It's phenomenal, just phenomenal. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it, and I can't tell you what a difference it does make," Pearl said of the crowd. "And we try to reward our fan base with the schedule we play. The January schedule, Gonzaga and Memphis coming in out of conference and then we start conference play. It's a reward to all of our fans."

These are the only crowds Josh Tabb knows. The junior swingman wasn't at Tennessee when an innocent whisper could be surprisingly disarming to an opponent just a few short years ago. Back when the "Kiss Cam" was the highlight.

"I heard about it when I first got here," said Tabb of the hideous crowds that made black curtains, not black seats, de rigueur at TBA. "But we have a great coach. The best coach I've had, ever. He's a good coach and knows the game and knows what he wants out of his players. Having coach Pearl here I think is the best thing that's happened to Tennessee basketball."

So pucker up, and kiss the "Kiss Cam" goodbye. Tennessee basketball simply is too good for it.

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