First Steps in Atlantis

The last time the Vols went to Atlantis, Rick Barnes’ program entered the national conversation during one of the most tumultuous weeks for the entire athletic department.

This weekend will mark five years since Schiano Sunday, coming at the end of the program’s only 4-8 football season in history. The baseball program hired Tony Vitello five months earlier, a dozen years removed from the NCAA Tournament. And men’s basketball hadn’t been there in three years themselves, which felt like a really long time after the success of Bruce Pearl and then Cuonzo Martin’s Sweet 16 squad.

Though the football team reached incredible heights for six weeks in 2016, the fall happened so quickly the program was left with its least competitive season in 2017, swiftly followed by its wildest coaching search. We didn’t know it when that Battle 4 Atlantis tipped off, but Tennessee was getting ready to move to an incredibly vulnerable place, with its major sports all looking for some kind of tangible success.

Rick Barnes followed one year of Donnie Tyndall (16-16), then went 15-19 and 16-16 in his first two seasons. The year before, playing a bunch of freshmen, the Vols showed some promise before fading late. In November of 2017, they got #18 Purdue in the opening round of Atlantis, with the RPI prize of top five Villanova awaiting the winner. The Vols had an opportunity to not just win a game, but play themselves into the conversation.

In a contest that still ranks as Tennessee’s most exciting game of the Barnes Era over at KenPom, those freshmen-turned-sophomores grew up quickly:

Tennessee, with Lamonte Turner’s three at the end of regulation and turning back two five-point deficits in overtime, beat the #18 Boilermakers. A Top 20 win would register differently now – Rick Barnes now has seven Top 5 wins under his belt at UT – but in the moment, it was an incredibly important victory. And though the Vols fell to Villanova the following day, they finished the week right with a win over NC State.

That set the stage for everything we’ve enjoyed since:

Tennessee’s Highest Rated Teams in KenPom (2002-present)

  1. 2019 – 26.24
  2. 2023 – 25.24 (present)
  3. 2022 – 24.81
  4. 2014 – 23.69
  5. 2018 – 22.27
  6. 2008 – 22.17
  7. 2021 – 19.95

Five of the last six years, including this one’s current projection, have given us five of the seven highest-rated basketball teams we’ve seen at Tennessee. Since the Bahamas, five Novembers ago, Tennessee basketball has been in the national conversation.

They remain there this week, currently sixth overall in KenPom though 22nd in the AP poll after the surprising loss to Colorado in Nashville. In Atlantis, the Vols are the highest-rated team in KenPom, even with the defending champs in the field (who went through NC State 80-74 earlier today):

  • Kansas (13th KenPom) vs NC State (66th)
  • Dayton (37th) vs Wisconsin (45th)
  • BYU (59th) vs USC (62nd)
  • Tennessee (6th) vs Butler (88th)

There are no duds in this field. A showdown with the Jayhawks in the finals would be great, but a consistent performance all week feels like an equally important goal. Continuing this week’s overall theme of, “you just never know,” the Vols exorcised the demons of the SEC Tournament in March, making us believe they could do just about anything…then blew out Gonzaga in an exhibition…then lost to Colorado.

But consistency has been the mark of the program overall since Atlantis five years ago. It carried the Vols to a 13-1 run to close the regular season and the SEC Tournament last year. And it would be a welcome sight this week, as Tennessee continues to compete for the goals that perhaps first reappeared on the horizon five Novembers ago.

It starts with Butler tonight at 7:30 PM on ESPN2. Go Vols.

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