By Alex Norman
In March, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team will play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. They also have a decent chance of winning the SEC tournament, something they haven’t done since 1979.
Tennessee has swept their season series with Kentucky and Vanderbilt and beat Florida in their only regular season meeting. That’s a 5-0 record against their biggest basketball rivals. I don’t need to tell you that the Vols football team with 0-3 against those schools this past season.
Sophomore forward Grant Williams is averaging 16 points and nearly six rebounds per game. He will be a first team all-SEC pick, and just might win the conference player of the year award.
Head coach Rick Barnes has been named one of 10 semifinalists for the Werner Ladder Naismith Trophy for Men’s College Coach of the Year.
Heading into the last weekend in February, the Vols were 20-7, with a 10-5 mark in conference play. Tennessee stands alone in second place in the SEC. Remember, the Vols were picked by the media in the preseason to finish 13th. The conference has 14 teams so no, not much was expected of UT this season.
It’s a likeable team with good kids that has played well above expectations. And except for James Daniel, everyone should be back for a serious run in 2018-2019. Daniel averages 21 minutes a game, sixth most on the team. He’s only started two games this season.
But Tennessee has been in the national rankings every week for the past three months. They were 19th in the latest AP poll. The important metric though is the NCAA’s RPI, in which the Vols are 11th. If they keep playing at a similar pace as they have all season, Tennessee will be a top 4 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
With all of this in mind, what is the Vols’ ceiling this postseason?
It’s a tough question to answer.
Let’s look at both postseason tournaments.
In terms of the SEC, the Vols aren’t going to be stuck playing in the early part of the schedule. Barring a complete collapse, they wouldn’t have to tip off until the quarterfinals on Friday, March 8th. In prior seasons, the Vols played in the dreaded Wednesday first round games. So, they will have fresh legs while their opponents will have played at least one game and possibly twice.
A key for Tennessee would be if they could avoid Kentucky or Missouri in that quarterfinal game. It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season, and the Wildcats will have their share of fans in St. Louis. The Cats always travel.
As for Missouri, that’s a team no one wants to play, especially in St. Louis, which will become the Tigers de facto home court. The Cuonzo Martin style of basketball not only isn’t visually pleasing, but it’s a bear to matchup with.
The Vols would be favorites against anyone they face in that quarterfinal. If no UK or UM in that game, they should make the Saturday semifinals and quite possibly win the whole darn thing.
As for the NCAA tournament, Tennessee is not going to be an easy out. They’ve played a tough schedule and won’t be rattled if the games are close. But it really comes down to matchups.
Ten years ago, Bruce Pearl had arguably his most talented Tennessee team. They vaulted all the way to number one in the nation. But that group ran out of gas in the NCAA’s, and got a brutal draw, even as a two seed. They lost in the Sweet 16 to Louisville.
But eight years ago, the Vols were a six seed that got some breaks. The three seed Georgetown was upset by 14 seed Ohio, and Tennessee shot the Bobcats out of the gym in the second round. In the Sweet 16, UT got two seed Ohio State, a team they had played against in previous years. They weren’t intimidated and pulled the upset. This was the Tennessee team that came within a Scotty Hopson free throw of making it to the Final Four.
Fast forward to today. The Vols have an experienced coach to go with a deep and now experienced roster. Tennessee can easily advance to the Sweet 16, barring an awful matchup in the opening round.
But no matter what happens in March, Tennessee fans need to enjoy the ride.
It’s one they never expected to take.