Last year Tennessee was on the wrong side of a good story and a bad bounce, sending Loyola-Chicago to the Sweet 16 and the Vols to think about next year. For the first 20 minutes today, the Vols were the good story: total annihilation of Iowa, a can-you-top-this response to Purdue’s triumph over Villanova.
That match-up is still on, but it had to wait a lot longer than we would’ve liked.
Again, there are no bad wins in this tournament. So just the same as we didn’t have to belabor how Colgate rallied to take a two-point lead midway through the second half in round one, we don’t have to burden ourselves with the excruciating details of Iowa’s second half rally today. The high points, anyway, are Lamonte Turner splashing a three after getting the wrong end of a terrible call, putting Tennessee back up three after Iowa tied the game on the ensuing free throws.
Let’s back up, though, to talk about one detail. Grant Williams hit a shot with 10:02 to play that put the Vols up 13. Iowa was game, but the Vols still had plenty of cushion. In the last ten minutes, the Vols made two shots: Lamonte Turner’s twisting layup to put the Vols up five with seven minutes to go, and the aforementioned clutch three with two minutes to play.
And then in overtime – with Admiral Schofield apparently benching himself – the Vols scored on their first four possessions. None bigger than this one:
49 points in the first half. 22 points in the second half. 12 points in overtime. And the Vols advance.
Here’s a picture to keep in mind:
Fans like us sit between the people in this photo. Today makes six trips to the Sweet 16 since 2000 for Tennessee, and five in the last 13 years. It’s happened enough to make it a reasonable expectation for a Tennessee team as good as this one. And this one just won its 31st game, tying 2008 for the school record, and remains atop the program leaderboard in KenPom. There are still plenty of reasons to believe this team can be the best in school history; it’s really just one more win away from ending that argument.
In the center is Rick Barnes, who’s now made seven Sweet 16’s: one at Clemson, five at Texas, and today. Barnes also won the next game three times at Texas, and made the Final Four in 2003. He hasn’t necessarily been to this point much more than us, but he’s been beyond it far more often. I don’t know how he feels about having water dumped all over him today only because he knows how he feels about having water dumped all over him when you’re going to the Final Four.
But I can tell how the guys holding the water feel about it.
We’ll nitpick and break down and figure out how to beat Purdue. But for now – at least for today – this picture helps me remember the guys on this team weren’t just heartbroken a season ago, they were 16-16 two years ago and 15-19 the year before that.
We’ve been here, Rick’s been here and more. But for this group – best in school history or not – this is history. It was almost the wrong kind of history with the biggest blown lead in the tournament. But, just as the Vols found out last year in this thing, almost doesn’t count. So instead, this team joyously plays on.
The next part looks different than last year too.
Part of 2018’s heartbreak was how the bracket came apart: had the Vols survived Loyola, they would’ve joined No. 5 Kentucky, No. 9 Kansas State, and No. 7 Nevada in Atlanta for a trip to the Final Four. This time, No. 3 Purdue is the next man up, with No. 1 Virginia and No. 9 Oklahoma set to meet tonight to determine who gets to face No. 13 UC Irvine (EDIT: or No. 12 Oregon, who apparently I’m discounting because we all still want to believe in Cinderella). So sure, the Sooners could win tonight and make an easier on-paper path in the Elite Eight. But Purdue, as demonstrated against Villanova last night, is a monster: the Vols are favored by a point in the opening line, the Boliermakers by a point in KenPom.
We’ll get to that, in great and joyous detail. And looking ahead, it’s not just that:
No. 1 North Carolina is up eight on Washington at halftime as I type. Duke, Virginia, Texas Tech, and Houston are all left on today’s slate among top three seeds. But man oh man, the potential in this Sweet 16. Maybe you didn’t like the first weekend because it lacked chaos (in the destination, because it was certainly present in the journey). But if you like great college basketball, look at what’s already out there next weekend:
- No. 2 Tennessee vs No. 3 Purdue
- No. 2 Michigan State vs No. 3 LSU
- No. 1 North Carolina (+8 at half) vs No. 5 Auburn
- No. 1 Gonzaga vs No. 4 Florida State
- No. 2 Michigan vs No. 3 Texas Tech or No. 6 Buffalo
And then, we could add a Duke/Virginia Tech rematch, another 2/3 battle with Kentucky and Houston, and No. 1 Virginia still alive too. This has the potential to be an all-time Sweet 16.
This can still be an all-time Tennessee team too. They’re going to have to be better against Purdue. But for now, for today…let’s celebrate. This team, two seasons removed from being 13th in the SEC media poll and 53 weeks removed from second round heartbreak, is going to the Sweet 16.
Keep getting better.