Everything with Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament fate will continue to start with the health and availability of John Fulkerson. But if he can’t go, Tennessee’s performance without him today against Alabama was incredibly encouraging.
Credit the Tide for their steadiness, even when down 15 with 17 to play. Alabama is relentless on both ends, and Tennessee matched them today. Two of the nation’s four best defenses didn’t disappoint: the Vols forced 17 turnovers, 19 for the Tide. It became only the second time this year Tennessee lost when forcing 14+, still not a bad sign considering the opponent and the newness.
Uros Plavsic played what had to be the most minutes of his career, and I thought did well considering. Davonte Gaines got a crunch-time defensive possession and aced it against Herbert Jones, then grabbed the rebound and got fouled. Don’t let his two missed free throws erase the reason he was on the line in the first place. We’re going to need him again before we’re done.
Tennessee’s only quality win without John Fulkerson scoring 10+ points before yesterday was at Rupp Arena, when the freshmen simply took over. It was the plan from the tip today: Keon Johnson had 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus nine rebounds. Jaden Springer had 18 on 7-of-17 from the floor, plus four rebounds and three assists. And they each turned it over five times. Alabama’s defense is the ultimate test this year, and they each got some right and got some wrong.
And there was no better available practice in Nashville overall than the Tide, and the Vols were still close enough to get one more exam: a game-on-the-line offensive possession, rare for this team that’s only played a pair of one-possession games all year. Victor Bailey rushed a three that didn’t come close with nine seconds still on the clock. Again, better to work that stuff out this week than next.
What of the bracket? The 4/5 line feels like a safe bet, which means you’re going to catch some of the best mid-majors or a team from “Dayton” in round one. Tennessee hasn’t played from there since 2007, so it’ll probably be a more interesting first round experience than what we’re used to.
But the Vols have to feel better about themselves, with and without Fulkerson, than when they came to Nashville. And after a rough go of it in February and early March, the Vols have now put together three really good games in a row against teams that should be seeded eight or higher in the NCAA Tournament, and Bama may still flirt with a one seed. That’s good to know, because that’s exactly who you’ll see in the Sweet 16 from 4/5 if chalk holds.
All that will come. For now:
And that can be true whether Fulkerson plays or not, it seems. The Vols weren’t overly fortunate today – 7-of-21 from the arc, 41.7% from the floor – but made Alabama work for everything on the other end. The defense truly is good enough to be there every night, and it won’t be Bama every night from here.
At the end of a long year, the old dancing shoes still feel good on our feet. Where to next?