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FAU 62 Tennessee 55 – The One Leads to the Other

I’ve been doing this a long time, which means I’ve been wrong a lot. Tennessee’s continual lineup fluctuations this season made them harder to predict in some ways, but we felt like their rebounding had moved to the forefront in playing taller lineups since Zakai Zeigler went down. The Vols had their three best defensive rebounding performances of the season against power five competition in the previous six games, capped off by holding Duke to a season-low 13% on the offensive glass.

And then last night, Florida Atlantic got 38% of their misses, the second-worst performance for the Vols all season.

Perhaps it was a smattering of four-guard lineups, something we thought Tennessee would do a lot this year but never really materialized due to injury. Some of it was FAU’s unusual size and excellent spacing, putting bodies in places we’re not used to seeing them when shots come off.

But it was a crucial element, and on both ends of the floor. A Tennessee team whose primary love language isn’t offense used the glass all season to create second chances. But the Vols couldn’t find excellence there either against the undersized Owls, getting the rebound 35.5% of the time on their own misses. That’s not bad, but when Tennessee shot just 33.3% from the floor, it all added up to not quite enough.

Sometimes the worst losses are the “we should’ve had it” defeats, and this one – both for Tennessee’s lead for the first 28 minutes, and Florida Atlantic’s overall seed – stings on both fronts. Credit the Owls for their run between the under 12 and the under 8, burying threes and putting enough cushion between them and us in that short span that our offense couldn’t overcome from there. And sure, FAU is definitely better than your average nine seed, just the same as Loyola Chicago was definitely better than your average 11 seed. Our brains and this sport just aren’t necessarily wired to feel it that way.

Tennessee has made the Sweet 16 seven times now in the 64-team format, all since 2000. It stings to be 1-6 in those games, a ceiling the program will continue to face until they break through to the next one. The history major in me always enjoys questions like, “How would we rate those losses?”, but the answer is in part, “they all hurt!”.

  • 2000: Lost a seven-point lead with 4:30 to play on eight-seed North Carolina, with a six or seven seed waiting in the Elite Eight.
  • 2007: Lost a 20-point halftime lead on #1 Ohio State and were blocked away at the buzzer. Shot 16-of-31 from three but 8-of-17 at the free throw line.
  • 2008: Our best team in program history, at least at the time, was outmatched from the start against Louisville in a 2/3 game, a 16-point loss.
  • 2014: An iffy charge call on Jarnell Stokes
  • 2019: Ryan Cline

What’s the two-sentence version of last night? Fluctuating lineups due to injury lead to an unusual rebounding disadvantage, nine-seed FAU makes one run we can’t overcome?

When we remember this team, I do think the lineups and injuries are in that initial paragraph. It was for Rick Barnes and his seniors in the postgame last night. The last two games will most closely mirror that 2000 tournament. It had the advantage of being Tennessee’s first trip to the Sweet 16, giving some percentage of house money for sure. It also might be our most “we should’ve had it!” of these losses, giving some percentage of the largest heartbreak.

Without question, that team’s second round win over UConn and this team’s second round win over Duke are 2A and 2B in postseason wins in Tennessee basketball history. That should, and I think will, stand the test of time. Until you win it all in this thing, your best win is always going to be tied to your next loss. There was more house money 23 years ago, but that team was also closer to the finish line before giving up the big run. They all hurt. They’re all supposed to.

There are lots of fun things to remember about this bunch, who got to number one in KenPom and beat number one Alabama. The Duke win will live on far beyond them, in ways I think their overall story with injuries will help. And they continued the good work that is Tennessee Basketball: being in the fight, finishing the regular season with a top four seed and a chance to advance, then doing just that against Duke.

I have no doubt the Vols will break through at some point, and I deeply hope it’s under Rick Barnes and his staff. The last two tournaments have shown us how, no matter how well you’re playing on the way in or how disjointed, everyone has a chance to advance in this thing. I’m so grateful for Tennessee taking advantage of that opportunity to get to the Sweet 16 this year, and it hurts that it didn’t extend to the Elite Eight with a real opportunity to do so.

This is the good work of Tennessee’s entire athletic department: give yourself a chance to win the title. If you only celebrate the breakthroughs, you miss most of the fun. And if you don’t hurt at the end, you miss most of the investment.

This program continues to give us a chance to do something special. We were close to something more, and that will always hurt. But looking back on the whole, I think we’ll find much to be proud of. And I’m grateful to Barnes and this team that this, too, is the norm.

Go Vols.

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Gavin Driskill
Gavin Driskill
2 months ago

It was a true roller coaster of a season, which lends itself to conflicting feelings about how both this season played out and the outlook for the future. On the one hand, the team had some legitimately high moments. Beat Kansas! Beat Texas! Beat Alabama! Made it to #1 in KenPom! Went as far in the tournament as almost any team in school history! And in some ways, it’s those things that make the lows that much more perplexing. After reaching #1 in KenPom and #2 in the polls, the team went 7-8 and lost nearly 6 points in AdjEM,… Read more »