It’s a dangerous thing to allow yourself a moment before the moment. Let’s take the risk.
Postseason play of any kind would’ve been progress for Tennessee this year; perhaps flirting with the bubble last season made the big dance the only definition of success. When Tennessee beat Purdue and followed up by not losing any games it shouldn’t have lost, making the bracket became a reasonable expectation. Then it was a favorable seed in the first round. Then it was maybe a four or five.
Tennessee just kept winning. They keep winning. We’ve been using stats like, “The Vols have won 13 of their last 16,” which is amazing. But we’ve also reached the point when the whole body of work is amazing, no matter what happens from here.
In fact, Tennessee has won so much, that sentence probably isn’t true. Because now the Vols are in line to be a two or three seed, the sort of number that carries the expectation of the tournament’s second weekend. Tennessee is 22-7 (12-5), numbers we haven’t seen in eight years.
We haven’t seen anything that lasts in these eight years. Not in football, where a few weeks of joy in 2016 were swept away by the second half of the season. Not in basketball, where Bruce Pearl was out the door a year after making the Elite Eight those eight years ago, and Cuonzo Martin was already on the way out the door when we came close to doing it again in 2014.
Football’s most recent, meaningful, lasting memory is a blocked field goal in overtime at Kentucky in 2007, basketball’s a blocked shot against Ohio State in 2010. Those are the highlights for Tennessee’s athletic department. And now, after the most tumultuous football season in the history of the department, basketball has done far more than right the ship. Basketball is making new memories, built to last. Basketball is getting ready to sell DVDs, or whatever they put season highlight films on these days.
And basketball can cut down the nets at Thompson-Boling tomorrow night.
What else is left to play for:
Lines are getting clear in the Bracket Matrix. In Thursday afternoon’s update, Virginia and Villanova were one seeds in all 70 entries, Kansas in 65, Xavier in 63. Duke, Purdue, Michigan State, and North Carolina are the two seeds, each with an average seeding in the matrix between 2.00-2.16. Then Auburn, Cincinnati, and Tennessee lead off the three line with an average seeding of 2.76-2.97. West Virginia is currently just ahead of Wichita State for the last three seed, but the Mountaineers are at 3.81.
So the consensus is these are the four one seeds, those are the four two seeds, and the Vols, Auburn, and Cincinnati are definitely next. Can anything change between now and Selection Sunday? If nothing else, Tennessee and Auburn might be competing for both the SEC title and a spot in the Atlanta region, almost certainly with Virginia (and thus not with Duke or North Carolina as the two seed in their bracket). Or maybe the committee has something else in mind. But if the matrix is a good guide, Tennessee is fairly stable on the three line.
But an SEC Championship wouldn’t hurt.
To beat Georgia:
If Tennessee’s best game was last time out at Mississippi State, its worst came in Athens two weeks ago. Grant Williams went 1-for-8 and had just five points, the Vols couldn’t make up the difference from the arc, and Derek Ogbeide was the hero off the Georgia bench with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Tennessee missed a chance to take the lead with six minutes to play and never got another one, ultimately falling by 11.
Georgia’s NCAA Tournament chances were still alive after that win, but two losses in the last three have done them in. It may have also done Mark Fox in. Both teams will be in unique emotional states tomorrow.
In the “I’d like to see them do that twice” department, Georgia shot 6-of-14 from the arc in the first meeting but is 324th nationally in three-point shooting on the year. The Vols had tremendous success encouraging Mississippi State to shoot threes; Georgia would rather go through Yante Maten as opposed to MSU’s guards, but the goal for Tennessee’s defense should be the same: take your chances with their outside shooting. Doing so should also help keep the Dawgs off the offensive glass this time.
Georgia is 29th in defensive efficiency; this is still an NIT-bound, capable basketball team. I doubt anything will come easily for the Vols in this game. But in front of a sold-out crowd with the title on the line, I doubt anything will come easily for Georgia either.
It’s been an incredible season, and its most meaningful moments are yet to come. This team is allowed to dream big. You get four chances to cut down nets: one for the conference title, one for the conference tournament, one for the Final Four, and one for the national championship. The Vols have never climbed those last two ladders, haven’t won the SEC Tournament since 1979, and haven’t cut down any nets since winning the conference title in 2008.
So much has changed in a short time under Rick Barnes. Tomorrow we can get something tangible to show for it.
6:00 PM, SEC Network. Let’s keep making memories.