It’s a credit to what Rick Barnes and these players have built that, in the immediate aftermath of Purdue’s win, I could google 2020 NCAA Tournament sites with a straight face.
(The regions aren’t friendly – New York, LA, Indianapolis, and Houston – but the Final Four is in Atlanta.)
The long-term achievement of this team – the last two, really – was building the program itself. We all wanted more for Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander, in large part because of that very truth. But Schofield, Alexander, and the rest have given Tennessee a chance to be in the second weekend conversation going forward, and with that a chance to break new ground in the future.
One of the things that made Bruce Pearl’s run so impressive was a sense of linear progression: the stunning run to the tournament in year one, the Sweet 16 in year two, a No. 1 ranking and SEC title in year three, then the program’s first ever Elite Eight in year five. But it’s also true that his two highest-seeded teams lost, just like this one, earlier than they were bracketed to fall.
Every path through March is different. Last night’s loss feels so bad in part because of the potential this team had. But the bracket’s potential for upsets ended up being non-existent this year. The 2000 and 2018 losses were far worse in this department, because the path was so much easier on paper.
The bracket will always be unpredictable. What Tennessee has done is create an expectation that it will give itself a chance to advance.
The program still carries those memories from Pearl’s 2006-11 tenure. But we also can’t forget the danger of three coaches in three years when Barnes took over. And the present accomplishment isn’t a cycle-up year with a bunch of great players; that’s what Cuonzo’s 2014 run felt like as it was happening. It was Pearl, in the second half of his time here, who argued the Vols were a Top 25 program. It’s the same argument he’s making right now at Auburn.
Barnes has the credentials for such an idea too, past and present. If next year’s team makes the Elite Eight, there will be a sense of linear progression again. But in sports, thinking in those terms is usually more trouble than it’s worth. It won’t always be linear. But progression overall is the important part. And this Tennessee team and its players have earned that.
If Grant Williams and Jordan Bone return, the Vols will find themselves right back in the national conversation from preseason on. Those two would join Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner as seniors, with John Fulkerson a redshirt junior. The Vols will also get D.J. Burns as a redshirt freshman, who would’ve been the highest-rated recruit on this year’s team. And they’ll bring in Josiah James, the third-highest-rated recruit of the modern era period.
If Bone leaves early, Lamonte Turner’s importance will only increase, but they can also get some of those minutes from James in theory. Bone could end up being the better NBA prospect, but Williams would be harder to replace, and not just because he’s a two-time SEC Player of the Year. With or without him making a comeback for a chance to win it thrice and improve his draft stock, the Vols have to get more from their post players. The Vols got 12 minutes per game from Fulkerson this year, up from nine the year before, with an in-kind uptick in scoring and rebounding. But Derrick Walker’s minutes actually decreased, from 8.8 to 5.3. Without Alexander, Schofield, and potentially Williams? There’s a big void someone (or multiple someones) has to step into next season.
If both Williams and Bone depart early, next season will have a reload/retool feel that could depend a lot on how good James and Burns are right away. But just as the Vols have played themselves into the second weekend conversation, they’re recruiting at a level to continue the program’s progress. There are no certainties; the program looked ready to ascend a number of times in the last 20 years and then ran into trouble soon after. But Rick Barnes is a better fit than Jerry Green and Cuonzo Martin, and a more stable one than Bruce Pearl.
The 2019-20 Vols will continue their series with Memphis, begin home-and-homes with Wisconsin and Cincinnati, and we could get Tennessee-Purdue III (plus Florida State and VCU) in Destin for Thanksgiving. The SEC shows no signs of slowing down, as the long line of fired coaches will attest to.
But neither does Tennessee. March is cruel. But four years after what could have been a crippling situation, the Vols are building a program to survive and advance.