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Simple, Not Easy

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Many years and one website ago, our old friends at the SB Nation Kentucky site referred to one of their losses as “an act of God.” I remember sharing a good-natured laugh about this at the time: such is the burden of Kentucky basketball, that when you lose, it has to be God’s fault first.

I thought about that earlier this year, when Kentucky shot a billion percent from the field at Rupp Arena. It was the worst statistical performance by a Tennessee defense in the last 20 years (via KenPom), at least. And Tennessee’s defense, as you know, was great. It was one of those things where the simplicity of it made it easier to stand, even when “it” was a 28-point loss to your biggest rival.

Two weeks ago today, Tennessee tied its school record by hitting 12-of-18 threes against Arkansas. The Vols were shooting 43.9% from three in their seven-game winning steak to close the regular season plus the SEC Tournament. We hit 14-of-24 (58.3%) in this building 48 hours ago.

Today: 2-of-18 (11.1%).

Tennessee’s previous low this season was 6-of-39 (15.4%) against Texas Tech. The 11.1% performance against Michigan isn’t just the worst all year, it’s one of the ten worst percentages the Vols have shot in the last 20 years (via KenPom).

I’m not sure I would even lean too heavily on the, “This team can go cold in spurts,” conversation. This wasn’t cold in spurts. There was no spurt. This was the freezer for 40 minutes. With good looks from good shooters. But today, the answer was no.

We almost won anyway. The Vols still had 15 assists, and shot 53.1% from two. Uros Plavsic had nine points and nine rebounds. Kennedy Chandler had 19 points and nine assists. The Vols turned it over just seven times.

But 2-of-18 from three beats you, in March or otherwise.

Credit Michigan for holding up their end, even short-handed. Hunter Dickinson kept them alive and well early in the second half, and his teammates picked up where he left off down the stretch. It’s our third tournament loss to the Wolverines since 2011, but this time there’s no coach waiting to be let go or a charge call we can’t live with.

Nothing is easy to live with in March. Wasn’t the case three years ago when Ryan Cline hit seven threes. Or the year before that when Sister Jean made sure it wasn’t God’s fault, but watched it hit the rim a few times just to keep ’em humble. Or any of the years before that.

It’s never easy. But it is pretty simple today. Tennessee was as hot as any team in the country, then had one of their coldest days in history.

When we lose like this, it’s easy sometimes to think of all the days as cold. Tennessee’s breaks in the NCAA Tournament have often happened next to us, instead of directly involving us. The Vols made the Sweet 16 in 2010 and 2014 by way of a 14-seed beating a 3-seed, then dispatching that 14-seed with ease in the second round. But in terms of a game just going Tennessee’s way in this thing? That’s a harder list to curate, with nothing on it like what happened to us today.

Maybe that’s the hardest part: you can play so well for so long. In Tennessee’s case, probably the best the Vols looked entering the NCAA Tournament ever. You can be hotter than you’ve ever been. And then you can be colder than you’ve ever been the next game. And then it’s done.

I love basketball. It’s my favorite sport. And thus, I don’t like reducing it to, “Who made shots?” Today was an outlier, though one I’m sure will make its way into the aggregate of many a lazier argument about the Vols.

On the whole, this team gave us so much joy. So many good memories in the regular season, the ones you bank away because you know it only ends in heartbreak for all but one in March, and we’ve only been all but eight once ourselves. And then this team won the SEC Tournament for the first time in my life.

There is much to celebrate, and there was much to be hopeful for, and then it’s just done in the simplest way. Whenever it stops being hard, maybe that will help us enjoy everything this group did accomplish more robustly.

Because whatever your list of favorite Tennessee teams is? I hope this one still has a chance to get on it.

Go Vols.

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