Elite Eight & Everyday Privilege

We don’t have many Elite Eight reflexes, but one thing I do remember from 14 years ago: this day between is strange. There is so very much to celebrate, so much uncharted territory. But also, in around 24 hours – a short amount of time, considering it took 31284710 hours for Friday night’s game to get here – Tennessee can do even more. For the very very first time.

Saturday is this balance between static and dynamic. Some things just are, safely are. Tennessee is in its second ever Elite Eight. Rick Barnes is in his fourth. This 2024 team will end its season in either Detroit or Phoenix with the best resume we’ve ever seen in Knoxville: an outright SEC title in a loaded league, tied for the program’s highest ever seed, now through to where only one team before – a six seed, in one of the wildest roller coaster seasons in any sport on this campus – has played.

They did so with no help from the bracket. When the Vols lost to nine seed Florida Atlantic in the Sweet 16 last season, it felt like a huge missed opportunity…but that path to the Final Four would’ve actually been Tennessee’s third-toughest. Among Vol squads with a real chance to advance – didn’t lose in the first round, didn’t get blown out in any round, etc. – only two faced more difficult paths by total seed count: the 2019 group, which went 15-10-3 and would’ve faced top seed Virginia had it gone differently against, you know, Purdue…and the 2007 group, which went chalk as a five seed against 12-4-1 and would’ve faced two seed Memphis. (The 2008 squad would’ve also faced chalk, but lost to three seed Louisville by 19 in the Sweet 16).

So among teams with what feels like a real chance to make the Final Four, only that 2007 group had a more difficult path than this one. This Tennessee team is now as far as anyone has ever gone here, from a seed as good as anyone has ever earned here, on a path as tough as anyone has ever faced here. Sharpie.

It’s only top seed Purdue next: the Boilermakers would be the fifth best team Tennessee ever beat in the KenPom era (behind 2019 Gonzaga, 2010 Kansas, 2008 Memphis, 2013 Florida). This year’s Auburn squad is currently number seven on that list behind the two Florida title teams in 2006 & 2007.

It’s Purdue in Detroit; the Vols will wear the orange jerseys. In them, they became the first team in school history to beat three ranked teams on the road. In them, they lost to Purdue in Maui by four points. In Maui, Dalton Knecht’s season high was 24 points. And in Maui, Zakai Zeigler played 28 minutes, off the bench.

You heard it from the man himself last night: they’re better.

But we’re better too.

Whatever comes next, it’s a privilege to be this far. But the real privilege, of course, is ours: not just to enjoy today and then buckle up again tomorrow, but to be fans of this team and this program. Something we’ve said a lot in football the past couple of years, in the language of a program finding itself again, is still true for a program now that has now found itself as seeds of three, two, five, three, four, and two in the last six NCAA Tournaments. Championships and uncharted territory are of course the goal. But the everyday privilege is being in the conversation. You don’t win every night or every year; we all know 98.4% of the teams in your bracket won’t end their run victorious. But this team and this program are in that hunt every single season. It is both a gift and by no means easy. It’s a joy, and a privilege.

We have somewhere between one and three nights left to watch this team. Enjoy every possession.

This season is a gift. Again.

And we’re not done yet.

Go Vols.

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Sam Hensley
Sam Hensley
2 months ago

Great article, Will. Where does this team finish in terms of all-time Tennessee squads based on KenPom?

This has been one of my favorite Tennessee sports teams ever. What a fantastic season!