Under head coach Rick Barnes, the Rocky Top Rowdies have been as loud as they have been in quite some time with the nation’s No. 1 team and reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone leading the Vols in hopes of reaching the Final Four for the first time ever.
Since the program started in 1908, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville has captured 10 SEC regular season titles, won four SEC Tournament championships, and produced a slew of All-American basketball players like Paul Walther, Reggie Johnson, Bill Justus, Tony White and Ron Slay. Even unsung heroes and recent stars such as Dyron Nix, Jajuan Smith, C.J. Watson and Scotty Hopson have been a big part of program history.
But who would be on the all-time starting five for the orange and white? Let’s take a look up in the rafters to find out:
Guard: Chris Lofton (2004-2008)
When you talk about the all-time great guards in SEC history, it would be absolutely foolish not to include Lofton. He was a two-time Consensus Second-Team All-American, a three-time First-Team All-SEC selection, and the 2007 SEC Player of the Year during his collegiate career and left Knoxville as one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in NCAA history.
Although the 6-foot-2 point guard from Maysville, Kentucky never really got a chance to shine in the NBA, deciding to stay for his senior season and having successful professional career overseas, his college days with the Vols should always be remembered by more than just Tennessee fans. He holds the SEC record in career 3-pointers made (third all-time in college basketball history) and his seven SEC Player of the Week honors are the most in league history.
Chris Lofton’s No. 5 jersey belongs in the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena very soon. He is the only one in the five to not have his jersey retired by the school.
Guard: Allan Houston (1989-1993)
Most everyone remembers Allan Houston for his NBA All-Star run with the New York Knicks in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but people often forget the 6-foot-6 sharpshooting guard got plenty of buckets for the Volunteers. In fact, he has the most points in Tennessee basketball history scoring 2,801 career points and ranked in the top-15 in NCAA history when his college career was over.
It’s safe to say Houston, a Louisville, Kentucky native, was a scouting report nightmare for opponents throughout his playing days and easily one of the of the greatest Tennessee basketball players ever.
Forward: Ernie Grunfeld (1973-1977)
Part of the historic “Ernie and Bernie Show” with teammate Bernard King (we’ll meet him later), the 6-foot-6 forward from New York City held the Tennessee scoring record (2,249 points) for 15 years before Allan Houston broke it in 1993. Grunfeld, a four-time All-SEC selection and current president of the NBA’s Washington Wizards, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1977 and helped the Volunteers win the SEC regular season title the same season.
It makes no sense why the Vols never advanced to the Sweet 16 during Grunfeld’s All-American college career, but there’s no doubt he was part of the most exciting era in school history.
Forward: Dale Ellis (1979-1983)
Before Dale Ellis was selected No. 9 overall in the 1983 NBA Draft and scored over 19,000 career points, the 6-foot-7 forward was one of the most decorated players in Tennessee men’s basketball history.
A two-time SEC Player of the Year and a consensus First-Team All-American in 1983, Ellis helped the Volunteers win a SEC regular season championship, a SEC Tournament title, and at least one game in the NCAA Tournament in all four years, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1981.
More often than not, Ellis, a Marietta, Georgia native, was a man amongst boys in college.
Forward: Bernard King (1974-1977)
The other half of the “Ernie and Bernie Show,” King was the first player in Tennessee history to have his jersey retired, and deservingly so, with his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame career really starting in Knoxville.
From Brooklyn, New York, the 6-foot-7 King earned First-Team All-SEC selections, SEC Players of the Year honors (one alongside Grunfeld in 1977), and All-American distinctions in all three years of his incredible Tennessee career.
King, the best player in school who often drew standing-only crowds, scored 42 points in his first collegiate game, which set the stage for his SEC dominance, before averaging 25.8 points and 14.4 rebounds per game as a junior and leaving early for the NBA.
After being selected No. 7 overall in the NBA Draft, King went on to become a four-time NBA All-Star, won a NBA scoring title in 1985, and finished his professional basketball career with 19,655 points.
Coach: Ray Mears (1962-1977)
Not only is Mears is longest-tenured coach in Volunteers history (15 years) and have the most victories in school history (278 wins), he created the gold standard for what Tennessee basketball is all about.
Whether it was his trademark orange blazer or his popular phrase “This is Big Orange Country,” Mears paved the way for head coaches such as Don DeVoe, Jerry Green, Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin and Rick Barnes with his coaching and marketing of the program.
Despite no major NCAA Tournament success, especially with all-time greats Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King on the same team, Mears will forever be the great coach in Tennessee history.
Mears, who retired in 1977, passed away in 2007 at the age of 80 in Knoxville.