KNOXVILLE — Brian Williams is a proud, proud New York City native who has watched “hundreds” of games in Madison Square Garden.
“It’s the mecca of basketball,” he said.
Williams is 80 minutes and two wins from playing his first game in the Garden, but the University of Tennessee’s 6-foot-10 senior center is trying to stay focused on the first step of that path — tonight’s 9:30 first-round Preseason NIT game against Belmont.
The 24th-ranked Volunteers (1-0) must beat the Bruins (0-0) and then either Arkansas State or Missouri State on Wednesday before heading to the semifinal round in New York.
“Our focus right now is Belmont,” Williams said. “But the ultimate goal is to get to the Garden. That means a lot to me, obviously. But we don’t go the Garden if we don’t beat Belmont.”
And that rarely is an easy task. The Bruins nearly beat the Vols in Thompson-Boling two seasons ago, and they lost a last-minute lead to Duke in a first-round game of the 2008 NCAA tournament. Only Kansas, Gonzaga, Memphis and Winthrop have won more conference titles than Belmont since 2006.
Knoxville native Rick Byrd, who has been at Belmont for nearly three decades, is the 12th-winningest active NCAA Division I basketball coach. To say he’s respected by his peers is a massive understatement.
“Rick Byrd does a tremendous job,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “He’s one of those guys that’s kind of on everybody’s list as one of the best coaches in the country nobody has heard about, and we’ve seen his team in action against the Vols. A couple of years ago they about came in here and beat us in a late December game.
“They’re always outstanding defensively — very, very solid. And they shoot and make more 3s than most teams do. So they’re extremely dangerous, they’re deep, they’re physical, and they’re really a solid bunch, you know, from a good league. We expect a good go from a team that’s got a chance to make the NCAA tournament. ... We’ll have to play better Tuesday to beat Belmont than we did Friday to beat Chattanooga.”
UT junior forward Renaldo Woolridge said Belmont “looked like a well-oiled machine against us my freshman year.”
“Belmont’s definitely one of those schools that’s a small school but a good team,” Woolridge added. “They’re disciplined, they’re really well-coached, and they can shoot. We can’t take these guys lightly.”
The Vols are again full of confidence after a season-opening, 82-62 win over UTC that wasn’t even that close until they finished the game with reserves on the floor, but Pearl doesn’t want his players too pleased with themselves.
“I don’t think right now we’re one of the top 25 teams in the country,” Pearl said. “I don’t think we’re playing to that level yet. I think we can be and that’s our goal to become that, absolutely. But taking us just on our [merits], where we are right now, we’re not one of the top 25 teams in the country yet.”
Junior guard Cameron Tatum said the Vols “better treat [tonight] like an NCAA tournament game, because that’s what Belmont’s going to do.”
“These guys came into our house a couple of years ago, and they’ve almost beaten Duke and some other big teams, too,” Tatum said. “We haven’t forgotten about that game a couple of years ago, and we all need to be mentally and physically focused on these guys ... before we start thinking about New York or anything like that.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.