Alive, Kickin’, and Doors

These are the days you enjoy the most, because later this week it’s gonna get stressful again.

That’s the beauty of the beast, especially in a world where 16 seeds can win and 15 seeds are in the Sweet 16 again. The tournament only allows enough time to celebrate the second win of a weekend, which is amazing for us right now. If the Vols win on Thursday night, you’ve got 48 hours to get ready for the biggest game of our lives. And if/when the Vols lose, it’s over.

That’s the season, and not the memories, of course. The Duke win gets to live forever, and it feels mighty fine on this Monday morning. But the bracket has broken differently than our previous trip to the Elite Eight. In 2010, the biggest fish was in the Sweet 16, two-seed Ohio State. This time around, the Vols are the bigger fish, having just pulled Duke out of the water. The cumulative challenge would ultimately be the same to reach the Elite Eight:

  • 2010: 11 San Diego State + 14 Ohio + 2 Ohio State = 27
  • 2023: 13 Louisiana + 5 Duke + 9 Florida Atlantic = 27

But this time, the Vols are the higher seed. In our seventh Sweet 16 since 2000, the Vols are the higher seed for the fourth time. Two of those other occasions were the 2/3 match-up, the same virtual toss-up as the 4/5 game we just played.

The closest comparison here is that first one in 2000, and very much so. Tennessee as a four seed beat Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round by five points. Next came UConn in the 4/5 game, a national power and the defending champions. And Tennessee’s defense smothered Khalid El-Amin, as the Vols took a 10-point lead at halftime and never looked back. Tennessee won 65-51, a single point off of Saturday’s performance against Duke. Those Vols saw Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, and C.J. Black all score in double figures, plus eight off the bench from freshman Ron Slay. After that Ohio State Sweet 16 win in 2010, Tennessee’s next-best NCAA Tournament win is either that UConn game, or Saturday against Duke.

And that bracket also broke wide open, with eight seed North Carolina taking down Stanford in round two. The six and sevens also won, with Miami and a Tulsa squad coached by a young Bill Self joining the Vols and Tar Heels in the regional semifinals. Though a four seed, Tennessee was the highest seeded team left standing after the first two rounds in the Southeast region.

The biggest difference, of course, is that was our first Sweet 16 of the 64-team format. And it’s a cautionary tale, even 23 years later: breaking new ground almost always guarantees a percentage of house money from that point on. That’s still how I feel about the loss to Michigan State in the Elite Eight in 2010.

But in 2000, Tennessee led North Carolina by seven with 4:30 to play. And it’s those losses that end up hurting most; UNC closed the game on a 17-5 run, and just like that it was over.

So yes: we can absolutely still get hurt in this thing. That’s because we’re still playing.

We’ll get to Florida Atlantic later this week. But for now, consider the value of still playing.

Only 17 programs have made multiple Sweet 16s in the last four NCAA Tournaments. And only five have made more than two.

Sweet 16 Appearances, 2019-2023

  • 4: Gonzaga, Houston
  • 3: Arkansas, Michigan, UCLA
  • 2: Alabama, Creighton, Duke, Florida State, Miami, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oregon, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Villanova

When you really get things rolling, it can feel like “make the Sweet 16 every year” is a reasonable goal. But that’s typically only Gonzaga territory: the Bulldogs have now made an insane eight Sweet 16s in a row. That’s one off the record of nine, held by both Duke and Carolina. And it’s helpful to be a one seed, which Gonzaga earned four times in these last eight tournaments.

Houston, meanwhile, hadn’t made the Sweet 16 since their Final Four appearance in 1984 before this current run started in 2019. They’ve had a more difficult path coming in, with seeds of three, two, five, and now one in these last four tournaments. They also took advantage of brackets breaking open in 2019 (beating #14 and #11) and 2021 (beating four double-digit seeds to make the Final Four).

But even after those two, the Vols find themselves in very good company here. When Rick Barnes became one of the highest-paid coaches in college basketball after the 2019 season, we looked at what reasonable expectations might be at that salary. Programs in that range make the NCAA Tournament 90% of the time, make the Sweet 16 slightly more often than not, and carry the expectation of an eventual breakthrough to the Final Four. So far, Tennessee is checking those boxes, and has a great opportunity to break new ground this weekend.

It will not be easy. Nothing for this team has been, and it’s much the same for most of college basketball this season.

But the Vols are thriving in the hard. And that’s good news as the stakes continue to rise.

Go Vols.

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2 months ago

I am stressed already… Go Vols!