LAWRENCE — In one calendar year, the Kansas Jayhawks played their way from unranked to No. 1 in the country, and it all started on Jan. 3, 2009, when the Tennessee Volunteers swaggered into Allen Fieldhouse.
Every program's trajectory has turning points; before the ball was tipped on that Saturday afternoon, KU was struggling to move forward after the 2008 national championship season. The Jayhawks had lost to Massachusetts and were pounded on the road by Arizona, and they were too young to have a real sense of identity. But against the Volunteers, KU realized that it was only going to be successful if Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich became the focal points.
Collins had 26 points and 9 assists, and Aldrich had 22 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks, and the Jayhawks outran Tennessee 92-85.
Looking back, it's pretty clear they needed it.
"That was a game where the whole world got to see how good we were," KU guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "I think before that a lot of people underestimated us because they didn't really know what we had."
It's highly possible KU didn't know until then either.
"We kind of needed to have a breakthrough game, and that was it," KU coach Bill Self said. "I think, if anything, last year's game against Tennessee gave us some confidence because they were really loaded. That (KU) team was just trying to find itself. That game, as much as any last year, probably aided us in doing so."
Collins and Aldrich carried KU to another Big 12 regular season title and a Sweet 16 appearance, and Self added three talented freshmen to the mix for this season. All the Jayhawks needed was one signature from Xavier Henry to vault themselves to preseason No. 1, and with a 14-0 record, it is KU that will roll into Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday confident in its ability to sweep the home-and-home with the Volunteers.
Both teams, because of a few key additions and subtractions, are very different from the two that took the floor a year ago.
Henry, who leads the Jayhawks with 15.1 points per game, has allowed Kansas to be far less dependent on Collins and Aldrich than it was in 2009. Of course, Collins showed on Wednesday night against Cornell that it still pays to have preseason first-team All-Americans on the roster, scoring a career-high 33 points when KU dearly needed them.
"We got out of the way," Henry said. "We knew when he got the ball, he was going to take care of it."
While KU's heart is still Collins, the Jayhawks don't need him to beat as furiously as he did last season most of the time.
As for No. 16 Tennessee, it's highly unclear who bangs the drum halfway through this season. Last season, that role belonged to the highly-versatile Tyler Smith. But Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl kicked Smith off the team on Friday, a week after Smith's arrest with three other players for misdemeanor gun and drug charges.
"I am deeply troubled and saddened," Pearl said. "Playing basketball at the University of Tennessee is a privilege, and where conduct is displayed that is detrimental to the team and the university this discipline is required."
Also suspended indefinitely are guard Cameron Tatum, center Brian Williams and point guard Melvin Goins. In the absence of four scholarship players, the Volunteers will have to follow the lead of talented sophomore guard Scotty Hopson, who averages 13.5 points per game. Big man Wayne Chism will have his work cut out for him with Aldrich and the Morris twins.
Now, it appears Tennessee is the program in need of a big win on its home floor.
"I've said this several times, and I truthfully mean it: Mike Anderson and Bruce probably do the best job of anyone that I'm aware of of taking whatever personnel they have and fitting it into what they do and not skipping a beat," Self said. "There's times when Missouri's or Tennessee's leading scorer is out of the game, and you don't even realize he's out of the game because of the way they play."
For the Jayhawks, surging toward an unbeaten nonconference slate, this one amounts to a chance to win in another tough environment and a chance to get better before conference play begins Wednesday at Nebraska.
"No matter what," Aldrich said, "whether those guys are playing or not, it's still going to be a great game."