KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Volunteers were tired of being the source of bad news.
After the arrest of four teammates on gun and drug charges and the dismissal of Tyler Smith, one of their best all-around players, they wanted to change their image.
Beating the top-ranked team in the nation should help with that.
Playing with a depleted lineup against the popular pick to win the national title, No. 16 Tennessee handed Kansas its first loss with a 76-68 victory on Sunday. The Vols also proved that coach Bruce Pearl’s team still has a chance to make some noise this season.
“When bad things happen, you can ask yourself, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ or ‘What am I going to do about it?’” said Bobby Maze, had 16 points, even rebounds and eight assists.
Now, Kansas must ask itself the same thing after becoming the fourth top-10 team to lose this weekend. No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Kentucky are the only remaining unbeatens in Division I.
“When you become a team, you know who you are from an identity standpoint, and I bet you Tennessee is closer to becoming a team with an identity than they were before,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I’ll tell you this, we are not any closer than we were yesterday.”
Kansas couldn’t find its composure in front of 21,936 screaming Tennessee fans at a sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena, which was hosting a No. 1 team for the first time. The Jayhawks turned the ball over 16 times, while Tennessee (12-2) had only eight turnovers.
“What that says is we have got a basketball program here,” Pearl said, “a basketball program capable of beating the No. 1 team in the country.”
It was the Vols’ first game after Pearl dismissed Smith on Friday, a week after the senior was arrested on misdemeanor gun and drug charges. Tennessee was also playing without Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams, who were arrested with Smith on Jan. 1.
The four players accounted for an average of 32.2 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists through Tennessee’s first 12 games.
As if things weren’t bad enough, the Vols — who had lost two players before the season — found themselves even more short-handed because of fouls. Starters Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince both spent more than half of the game on the bench.
It was Skylar McBee — one of three walk-ons helping to bolster Tennessee’s lineup of six scholarship players — who hit a key shot to ice the Jayhawks.
Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor stole the ball and dished it to Brady Morningstar, who hit a 3-pointer with 1:14 left to cut Tennessee’s lead to 71-68. After a timeout, McBee answered with his own 3 as the shot clock expired.
Sherron Collins, who bailed the Jayhawks (14-1) out of a near loss to Cornell on Wednesday with a career-high 33 points, couldn’t help this time. He missed three shots before time expired, and finished with 22 points.
“I think a loss can really mold a team,” Kansas junior Cole Aldrich said. “We lost three of five my freshman year and I don’t think we would have won a national championship if we didn’t lose three of five.”
Beth Rucker/The Associated Press