By Alex Norman
College basketball is tricky come tournament time. It’s all about getting the right matchups at the right time. Amongst the programs that have never been to a Final Four, Tennessee is one of the winningest programs out there.
But this year seems to be their best shot at finally cracking that glass ceiling.
This Vols team is experienced. They are unselfish. They have a coach that will someday be in the Hall of Fame. They spent four weeks at the top of the national rankings.
But in recent weeks there are some disturbing signs that don’t necessarily give Vols fans confidence that a trip to Minneapolis is one they’ll be able to take.
First of all, that feeling of invincibility was lost when their 19 game win streak was snapped during a 76-59 loss at fifth-ranked Kentucky. It was the Vols first defeat since the day after Thanksgiving, when they fell in overtime to then second-ranked Kansas.
“We were phonies tonight,” Tennessee star forward Grant Williams said after the loss to the Wildcats.
“It really is very disappointing,” said Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes. “And plain and simple, they beat us every way you could be beaten.”
The Vols didn’t learn their lesson as a week later they lost 82-80 in overtime at thirteenth-ranked LSU. This was a bizarre contest, one with phantom calls and a referee that was later outed on social media as possibly being an LSU fan. A few years ago he posted a picture of himself holding an LSU t-shirt and typed “Geaux Tigers.”
But the big issue was Tennessee’s defense. LSU guard Ja’vonte Smart torched the Vols for a career high 29 points, driving into the lane time and time again.
On offense, the Vols got to the free throw line 16 times to LSU’s 31. Yes, you can blame the awful officiating if you like, but Tennessee must find ways to get to the free throw line. Grant Williams was at the line 10 times in this game, with his teammates there for only six free throws. This has been a problem throughout the season, and one that could cost the Vols once tournament play begins.
With three losses as of the writing of this article and a tough finishing regular season stretch, plus the SEC tournament, there is no guarantee that Tennessee is going to be a one seed in the NCAA tournament, and that means the road to the Final Four could be more difficult.
But as we discussed earlier, it is all about the matchups.
Back in 2010, Tennessee was a six seed, yet got a break when three seed Georgetown was upset by Ohio. The Vols beat the Bobcats in the second round, then upset a team they knew very well (second seed Ohio State) on their way to the Elite 8.
In 2014, Tennessee barely got into the NCAA tournament, beating Iowa in a play in game. But then were blessed to play a weak six seed from UMass, and a fourteenth seed Mercer team that had upset third seed Duke. The Vols advanced to the Sweet 16, falling by only a bucket to seven seed Michigan.
Should the Vols finally get to a Final Four, they need to figure out some answers to their issues on offense and defense. And they’ll need to get a little luck along the way.
Just like every year…