It’s March, which means we’re just a handful of days from brackets, which means we’re just another handful of days from, “Every team in the tournament loses except one.” What we can say for sure about Tennessee’s season on March 2 is that they will make the NCAA Tournament, and they will lose at some point unless they win it all.
I don’t know if we’re allowed to dream that big around here, since we’re still looking for our first trip to the Final Four. A visit to the Elite Eight would only be our second. Since the turn of the century, the Vols have made the Sweet 16 six times; not bad for a program with zero appearances in the 64-team field in years that started with 19__. For the most part, there’s only heartbreak from there: the last five minutes against North Carolina, a 20-point halftime lead against Ohio State, a charge call against Michigan, and Ryan (Fulmerzied) Cline. Only once – even with one of the program’s best teams in 2008 – did the Vols just get straight up beaten by a better opponent, the way it might happen if the Vols land on the 4/5 line in a region with Gonzaga, Baylor, or Michigan this year. And only once, now 11 years ago, did the Vols break through.
If they get that far this time, it’ll be a success. If they’re upset in round one, it’ll be a disappointment. Everything else, at this point, feels a little fuzzy.
This is the year for fuzziness.
It’s a better option than last year, when the Vols won at Rupp Arena 364 days ago then everyone’s season was cancelled nine days later. Presence beats absence. But this year’s presence is confusing, and not just because most of us haven’t been there to see it in person. These Vols started 7-0, capped with a 20-point win in a Top 15 showdown at Missouri. Then they went to 10-1 (4-1), beaten only by an Alabama team it turns out is pretty good, especially good when they hit 10-of-20 from the arc.
Since then, of course, they’re 6-6. After winning at Rupp again on February 6, the Vols have won every Wednesday and lost every Saturday (which is unfortunate considering there is no Wednesday game this week). What seemed like very real conversations on earning a number one seed and winning the SEC have given way to the giant shrug emoji.
It is perhaps this team’s greatest achievement: they played so well early on they made us forget what should be the biggest given in a pandemic year. How dare we expect consistency?
Except they had it, until they didn’t.
Soon, this season is going to end. Perhaps they’ll rebound and beat Florida they way they’ve rebounded, for at least one game, after almost every loss. Maybe they’ll make a run it what should be a l-o-a-d-e-d SEC Tournament, which would be really fun; maybe they’ll last one day due to the aforementioned loadedness. And truly, you’d believe most anything about their NCAA Tournament fate right now.
Either way, this thing will be over soon. I don’t have the answers any more than Rick Barnes or anyone else does. Maybe it’ll end with success. Maybe it’ll end with more disappointment.
But before any of that happens, in the middle of this week with no game to play, a word of thanks.
These guys go through God knows what to play. Covid testing, restrictions and regulations, and a very different life than they experienced or imagined in being part of Tennessee basketball. I know they wanted to play; I know it’s in the immediate financial interests of a couple of them to have done so. Even so, I’m grateful they’ve been here twice a week.
This was something that maybe never had a chance to be properly expressed during the football season. In a pandemic, inconsistent should be the norm: witness Penn State or LSU in football, or Duke and Kentucky in basketball. The fall we experienced was a lot of things, but inconsistent failed to be among them. Losing to Kentucky the way we did skipped a number of conversations, and there was never a chance to go back to them when the Vols couldn’t follow up with a win to stop the snowball’s roll. And, rightfully so, then we had to have the big picture conversations about the coach and the program and an investigation, all things this basketball season should happily avoid even if the Vols don’t win another game.
But in the midst of all that, too, were football players facing tests and isolation and loss, in more ways than one. And they wanted to play, and since they last played several have decided it’s in their bests interests to play elsewhere. It was almost impossible to be grateful for last season. But I am grateful they tried to play.
In basketball, it’s worth pointing to the future from here, before this team’s ultimate March fate is decided. Another five star is on the way, John Fulkerson might be back, there is much to be excited about beyond just this season. That’ll be true if they get bounced in round one or break back through to the Elite Eight. The one will still be disappointing and the other will still be celebrated.
But either way, for all the frustration that comes with inconsistency, I’m so grateful they’ve been here this season.
I have no idea what they’re going to do in March. But I can suggest simply enjoying it, for as long as it lasts.