The Next One is the Best One

So maybe Tennessee and Duke will meet right away next year in the inaugural SEC/ACC Challenge. As your profile rises, more teams are willing to say yes. Consider this: the Vols and Kansas never met before 2009. And now we’ve seen the Jayhawks seven times in the last 15 seasons, and four of the last five. Tennessee and North Carolina, separated by a little more than five beautiful hours in the car, didn’t play for 50 years between 1949-1999. And now we’ve seen the Tar Heels six times in the 2000s, including three under Rick Barnes.

Duke, of course, is right down the road. And since 1980 – that’s basically my lifetime and probably many of yours – we’ve played once, in Maui, in Cuonzo Martin’s first season.

And now, tomorrow.

We got to tomorrow through the haze of last night, a series of not-ideal events that still led to the one and only outcome that matters in this thing. Without Zakai Zeigler, we knew Santiago Vescovi would carry the heaviest load, and that he was the least foul-prone player on the floor. About that: he picked up two fouls in less than eight minutes, sitting the last 12:30 of the first half. Tennessee still extended their lead during that stretch, but Louisiana stayed on top of Vescovi in the second half.

Vescovi ended up playing just 27 minutes, the fewest he’s seen in a game the Vols didn’t win by 25+ since February 12 of last season. Three points is the fewest he’s scored since January 29 of last season.

But Tennessee hit their most important benchmarks on the defensive side of the ball, which remains far and away the most important piece of their puzzle. The Vols moved to 21-0 when holding their opponent under 60 points, and did it without fouling: just 14 whistles, just 5-of-9 at the line for the Rajun Cajuns. When Tennessee defends without fouling, so far this year you have to hit 10 threes to beat them.

Tennessee’s best offensive benchmark is getting second chances. But Louisiana did their part there, limiting the Vols to just six offensive rebounds, 23% of our misses. On that, Zakai Zeigler’s absence is being felt after all – here’s Barnes in the postgame:

But the last couple games without Zakai, we didn’t have very good floor balance because these guys are used to going to the glass, all of them, with the exception of Zakai. So tonight to make sure we didn’t give any run outs, we said we’re going to send two back just to make sure we had that covered.

Tennessee saw an 18-point lead diminished to three, but never gave Louisiana the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. The Vols got big buckets from Jonas Aidoo and Jahmai Mashack to stop the bleeding at the under eight, then made just enough free throws to stay in front late.

As a result, the Vols are through to the second round. And it’s Duke next.

The Blue Devils may not have Coach K, but they do have ten wins in a row. And they have plenty of size to try to keep the Vols off the offensive glass, should they so desire.

But Tennessee against marquee opponents this season? The Vols scored three wins against one and two seeds, beating Alabama by nine, Texas by 11, and Kansas by 14.

Think about it this way: Tennessee’s best NCAA Tournament win of all-time is the Sweet 16 classic with Ohio State in 2010, taking down a two seed en route to the program’s first and only Elite Eight.

What’s our second best win in the tournament?

I’d go with UConn in the 2000 second round, another 4/5 game that saw the Vols dethrone the defending champs and make their first Sweet 16 of the 64-team tournament. But if you’re too young for that one, what’s next? After the Buckeyes, four seed Virginia is the highest-seeded team the Vols have ever beaten in March, back in another 4/5 game in 2007.

The seed and the opponent make a few things really clear: the Vols will need to play well.

And if they do, they’ll have a chance to earn one of our most meaningful NCAA Tournament wins in school history.

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1 year ago

Go Vols… WIN! No style points needed.