The Volunteers ascended to the top of The Associated Press college basketball poll for the first time in the program's 99-year history after their 66-62 win over previously unbeaten Memphis, which dropped from No. 1 to 2.
Coach Bruce Pearl said his team had "everything to gain and nothing to lose" playing the Tigers, who were feeling the pressure of preserving a perfect season and protecting the top ranking.
Now his Vols (25-2) are facing the same predicament as they prepare to face No. 18 Vanderbilt on Tuesday in Nashville, a game that could hold the key to winning the Southeastern Conference.
"There's always a big prize for Vanderbilt to beat Tennessee and Tennessee to beat Vanderbilt," Pearl said during a Monday luncheon. "What we've done is we've made it a bigger prize coming in with a No. 1 ranking."
It's a new perspective for a team that has long played in the shadows of Tennessee's women's basketball team and Volunteers football.
The men's program hasn't outranked the women's program in the AP poll since January 1982, the same year the NCAA started its women's tournament. The men were ranked 15th midway through a 21-10 season under coach Don DeVoe while the women were briefly unranked.
The football team has been ranked No. 1 during four seasons in which they won two national titles. Under Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols have been a fixture of the women's poll and have won seven national championships.
The Vols men's basketball team, which has never been ranked higher than No. 4 before this season, received 69 first-place votes from the 72-member national media panel to become the 53rd school to hold the No. 1 ranking since the poll began for the 1948-49 season. They're the sixth SEC team to reach the top.
Beyond the pressure of playing as No. 1, Tennessee is trying to grab its first outright SEC regular-season title since 1967. It won't be easy as the Vols are in the middle of the toughest stretch of their schedule.
After facing the Commodores, Tennessee hosts Kentucky and travels to Florida.
Pearl said his team has built confidence in pulling out the close wins that have propelled them to the top.
"This team has been resilient and they've found ways to win or not lose," he said. "We're going to go to Vanderbilt and try to find a way not to lose."
Pearl said the Vols might find beating the Commodores even tougher than beating Memphis with only two days to prepare.
The team didn't get a lot of sleep after arriving home around 2:30 a.m. Sunday and only watched film and shot free throws in their practice later that afternoon. They left for Nashville on Monday afternoon.
Friends have told Pearl the grueling schedule is starting to show.
"I've had people tell me, 'Coach, you don't look good.' We're 25-2, I don't care what I look like," he said.