All of these things can be true at the same time:
- The Vols were on the wrong end of an unfortunate call in the final minutes of a big game. An Auburn three should have been ruled basket interference.
- There are plenty of other things Tennessee could have done better to win; limiting turnovers (13) and not getting carried away from the arc (28 attempts) were a good place to start today.
- The Vols are a jump-shooting team, and a really good one at that. As a result, they don’t get to the free throw line as much (29.8% free throw rate in league play, 13th in the SEC).
- Vol opponents were whistled for 20+ fouls 10 times this season. All of them came in November-January.
The Vols got a bad call. The Vols did plenty of other things wrong. The Vols don’t get to the line very often because they’re a great jump-shooting team. The Vols don’t get to the line as much as they did earlier this year.
All of it was a factor in Auburn’s 84-80 win. And all of it could be a factor in the games that matter most. And those games are coming soon.
When you’re trying to win the big prize – a position Tennessee is still getting used to – everything that precedes the NCAA Tournament is about producing your best basketball for those three weeks. And the more you win, the easier the path in the bracket.
Tennessee’s best basketball was the last two games: 71-52 over Kentucky, 71-54 over Mississippi State. The defensive end gave it that qualifier. Today, Auburn launched 34 threes and, to their absolute credit, made 13 of them (38.2%). The Vols probably got a little caught up in it, firing 28 of their own. Before we’re too quick to judge that, however, keep in mind that 28 was the second-highest total of the season…behind 29 against Gonzaga. It can work both ways.
It works better for Tennessee playing inside-out; Auburn didn’t have the interior presence of Gonzaga, so it was certainly less wise today. But Tennessee works best overall when it defends at a higher level than we saw today. Part of it was Admiral Schofield’s foul trouble, limiting him to only 25 minutes. But that’s also simply part of who Tennessee is: the Vols play a short rotation, and can be vulnerable when the whistle doesn’t go their way.
So yes, the whistle got weird at LSU and Auburn. That’s half of Tennessee’s losses and two-thirds in SEC play; unless Vanderbilt gets the Holy Spirit tonight, the Vols (and possibly Kentucky) will become the first team to go 15-3 in SEC play and fail to win the title. Some of it is bad luck. Some of it is poor officiating. Some of it is Tennessee needing to be even better.
Much like the loss at Rupp, Tennessee can use this as a learning experience. On the whole, a 27-4 (15-3) season with overtime losses to Kansas and LSU, a four-point loss at Auburn, and falling at Rupp Arena? That’s an excellent year, worthy of the one seed conversation. When it started at 23-1 (11-0) and finished 4-3 – due more than anything to the increased degree of difficulty in the schedule – it feels a little more disappointing.
But the last word of this season is a long way from being written.
If the Vols are out of the No. 1 seed conversation, their biggest loss today is potentially having to face the very best teams (Virginia and full-strength Duke) in the Elite Eight instead of the Final Four. I don’t think the Vols are totally eliminated from the No. 1 seed conversation – what Kentucky and North Carolina do today and next week will matter – but they had to be considered the favorite going into today.
But the biggest picture finds a Tennessee team that just put its best basketball on the floor in Knoxville, then took itself out of it at Auburn before hot three-point shooting and a bad call finished them off. The Vols no longer control their own destiny for the SEC title and a No. 1 seed. But they absolutely control their own destiny for their best basketball showing up in the NCAA Tournament.
Keep getting better.