Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Tennessee has made the NCAA Tournament 16 times. Fifteen of those have come in the last 25 seasons, including 11 of the last 17. We’re getting used to this.
What we’re not accustomed to yet is advancing beyond the Sweet 16. The program’s only appearance in the Elite Eight is now 12 years old, ending a bucket shy of the Final Four in 2010. Tennessee’s six trips to the Sweet 16 since tournament expansion have come one of two ways: earn a top five seed, or get some help in the bracket. Two of Tennessee’s very best teams got there in 2008 and 2019. A pair of Vol squads won the 4/5 game in round two in 2000 and 2007. And two others found a 14 seed waiting in round two in 2010 and 2014.
Maybe you’ll find this helpful for visualizing our tournament history:
|2||06 08 19||06 08 19||08 19|
|4||99 00||99 00||00|
It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves when Tennessee is playing so well. In fact, I’m not sure any Tennessee team has played this well leading up to the tournament, so yeah, maybe we don’t know how to handle it at all. Jerry Green’s best teams in 1999 and 2000 won incredibly meaningful games down the stretch in the regular season, but both lost on Friday in the SEC Tournament. The same fate befell Bruce Pearl’s first two teams in 2006 and 2007.
And even those very best teams in 2008 and 2019 ran into a combination of fatigue and the schedule catching up to them. The 2008 squad was 25-2 when it went to number one, but finished 4-2 down the stretch. The 2019 squad was 23-1 before losing at Rupp, finishing 4-3 in the regular season before riding a steep roller coaster in the SEC Tournament. The 2010 team that advanced the farthest won five in a row, then lost to Kentucky by 29 in the SEC semifinals. And Cuonzo Martin’s team won five in a row in their closing run by an average of 23 points, but only one of them finished in the KenPom Top 100.
This Tennessee team was 11-5 (2-3) on January 15, and lost at Kentucky by 28. Since then they are 15-2, with a one-point loss at #6 seed Texas, and a loss at #4 seed Arkansas. In that stretch they’ve beaten #6 seed LSU, #2 seed Kentucky, #2 seed Auburn, #4 seed Arkansas, and #2 seed Kentucky on a neutral floor. Without question, they are playing their best basketball.
But before we worry about Arizona or the Final Four, consider how quickly history would be in front of this team.
Since tournament expansion, here are the highest-seeded teams Tennessee has beaten in the NCAA Tournament:
- #2 Ohio State (2010 Sweet 16)
- #4 Virginia (2007 Second Round)
- #5 UConn (2000 Second Round)
If the Vols beat Colorado State in the second round, it’ll go next on the list, tied with #6 UMass in the first round in 2014. If the Vols beat Villanova in the Sweet 16, it’ll tie 2010 Ohio State for the best team we’ve beaten in the tournament and the farthest we’ve advanced, ever.
Beyond seed or path, this Tennessee team has as good of a chance to advance as any I can remember. The tournament is also a dangerous, single-elimination affair. In 2019, Colgate hit 15-of-29 from the arc against us, and made life a lot less comfortable than we had in mind going into a 2-vs-15 game.
It’s a privilege to consider the ceiling with a team like the one we have now. But the incredibly meaningful outcomes along the way in the bracket, especially relevant to our tournament history, give us reason to celebrate every single win in this thing.
I hope there are many of them. Almost all of them can be special.