Former Wolverine standout makes his mark in Knoxville

By Jonah Rosenbaum

In Knoxville, Tennessee, basketball matters.

When University Of Tennessee Head Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl first saw the team’s enormous 22,756 -seat arena (almost double the size of UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion), he asked himself, “I wonder if this place is big enough?”

The question might have been a good one, as 21,314 poured in to see the Volunteers take on Belmont, over 2,000 more than saw the Lakers-Celtics on Christmas day. While game days might be a popular and exciting diversion for Tennessee fans, they hold a vastly different experience for former Wolverine standout and current Tennessee freshman Renaldo Woolridge ’08.

Woolridge is a 6’8 small forward, and the son of former Laker Orlando Woolridge. As a senior at Harvard-Westlake, Woolridge averaged 19.1 points per game, and led the team to the second round of the playoffs before it fell to top ranked Mater Dei. Woolridge committed to the University of Tennessee over such schools as Georgetown, USC and Illinois.

Woolridge has experienced the typical ups and downs of a freshman playing early minutes for a major program.

He began the season in the starting lineup, a rare feat for a freshman in the competitive Southeastern Conference. Woolridge averaged 6.6 points through the first 11 games, including a 14 point outburst against Sienna.

Over the last 10 games, Woolridge has fallen into a shooting slump, averaging only 1.5 points per game, and shooting just one for 12 from three- point range.

One of the ups so far this season came during the Vols game versus Belmont early on in the season.

The day of the game, Woolridge and his teammates woke up and immediately had to focus their attention elsewhere. With the game just hours away, they had school on their mind.

“Before home games, we go to class just like everybody else,” Woolridge said.

After class was over, Woolridge and his teammates headed to the team’s practice facility.

“Five hours before the game, we had a walk through going over defending their plays as well as fine tuning ours.”

Pearl stressed the importance of taking little known Belmont seriously, referencing their near upset of perennial power Duke, in the previous year’s NCAA tournament.

At 11 a.m., four hours before the 3 p.m. tipoff, the team had their traditional pre-game meal.

“We always have steak, pasta and some sort of vegetable to get us right for the game,” Woolridge said.

After the meal, the team had two and a half hours to relax before entering their arena for the shoot around. The shoot around is used to get warmed up before the game.

“The guards and big men split up and work on some individual offensive things,” Woolridge said.

At 2:30, fans are beginning to pile in, the band is playing Tennessee’s fight song “Rocky Top,” and the team is in the locker room getting final instructions from their coach.

“Coach Pearl went over game strategies, and hyped us up for the game,” Woolridge said. While some players are beginning to feel nervous, Renaldo remains relaxed.

“He just stays calm, and gets ready for the game,” his sister Tiana ’11 said. “He likes to listen to Lil’ Wayne before running onto the court.”

After the team has listened to Pearl’s speech they run onto the court to thunderous applause.

The ESPN crew is going over the keys to the game, and the team is getting in a final warmup, while Belmont is being greeted by loud boos and taunts on the other side of the court.

Five minutes before tipoff, the team heads up to the top of the arena, and following Tennessee tradition, runs all the way down to the court, high fiving fans along the way.

The game went back and forth, and as Pearl predicted, was closer than expected. Belmont had a chance to win the game, but guard Alex Renfroe missed two free throws down the stretch and Tennessee hit their freethrows, ultimately winning 79-77. Woolridge had nine points in 15 minutes of play.

After the game, Coach Pearl talked to the team about “how we did and also about our next opponent.”

After a long night, Woolridge headed to dinner with teammates Wayne Chism, Scotty Hopson and Tyler Smith.