What was Tennessee’s “easiest” path to the Final Four?

In this chaos bracket, shout out to Miami: the Hurricanes went through the hardest possible path as a five seed, knocking off a 12, 4, 1, and 2 to reach the Final Four. That’s a seed score of 19, far stronger than UConn (29), Florida Atlantic (31), or San Diego State (32). Each of those teams would say, “Who cares!” right about now, and that’s exactly right. And each of those teams took down a top three seed in their region to make it to Houston.

For Tennessee, the lament of, “only a nine seed away from the Elite Eight!” is frustrating for sure, especially as our program seeks its first Final Four. In one sense, every eliminated team is feeling some sense of missed opportunity in this year’s w-i-d-e open tournament. But for Tennessee, I wanted to try to quantify exactly how missed the opportunity was, how “open” Tennessee’s path was compared to other shots we’ve had.

So we went back through each of the brackets going back to the Jerry Green days, and pulled nine of them. We didn’t consider any years when Tennessee lost in the first round, or was blown out in any round. In trying to find our “best” path to the Final Four and compare this year’s opportunity to it, we found a few surprises along the way.

Tennessee’s “Best” Paths to the Final Four

1. 2018: 14 Wright State + 11 Loyola Chicago + 7 Nevada + 9 Kansas State = 41

2. 2006: 15 Winthrop + 7 Wichita State + 11 George Mason + 1 UConn = 34

3. 2000: 13 Louisiana-Lafayette + 5 UConn + 8 North Carolina + 7 Tulsa = 33

4a. 2010: 11 San Diego State + 14 Ohio + 2 Ohio State + 5 Michigan State = 32

4b. 2022: 14 Longwood + 11 Michigan + 2 Villanova + 5 Houston = 32

6a. 2014: 6 UMass + 14 Mercer + 2 Michigan + 8 Kentucky = 30 (plus Dayton)

6b. 2023: 13 Louisiana + 5 Duke + 9 Florida Atlantic + 3 Kansas State = 30

8. 2019: 15 Colgate + 10 Iowa + 3 Purdue + 1 Virginia = 29

9. 2007: 12 Long Beach State + 4 Virginia + 1 Ohio State + 2 Memphis = 19

So, a couple of notes here:

The first opportunity for both Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes is, so far, the “best” opportunity. 2018 still stands apart here, where the Vols would’ve faced no one seeded higher than seven to get to the Final Four. Of course, you can use that luck both ways, as Kyle Alexander was injured in the Round 1 win over Wright State, just before the Vols were Sister Jeaned in Round 2.

Meanwhile, there’s probably been no house money like 2006: in the tournament for the first time in five years, with the program’s highest seed of all-time. A magical year one for Pearl came to an end in Round 2 against Wichita State. A back-and-forth affair saw the Vols take a five point lead with 5:46 to play. It was tied with two to play, when Wichita hit a jumper and a three on back-to-back possessions, followed by two missed UT free throws. The loss was disappointing, but the future seemed (and was!) bright. This turned out to be the George Mason bracket, who the Vols would’ve played in the Sweet 16.

Both of these teams brought a ton of talent back, which always makes it easier to pivot to next year. And both teams made the Sweet 16 the following season. But the math suggests you never take any of these opportunities for granted. I feel the same way about our lone appearance in the Elite Eight: I wouldn’t rate that Michigan State loss as the most heartbreaking for our program, not by far, because we were so excited just to be there. But in hindsight, it’s still our closest call…and it was really close!

This year’s bracket may be craziest overall, but not necessarily for Tennessee. To make this Final Four, the Vols would’ve still needed to go through a five seed and a three seed. It’s pretty similar to what we saw last season, when Tennessee would’ve had to face a two and a five in the regionals. Both of them felt like missed opportunities, but at least on paper, they’re not as bad as 2018, 2006, or 2000.

Tennessee’s best team also faced the most difficult path. The 2019 Vols, even had they gone through Purdue in the 2/3 Sweet 16 game, would’ve met number one Virginia in the Elite Eight. The Hoos and Boilermakers played a classic in real life, but that Virginia squad is one of the best college basketball teams of at least the last ten years. Sometimes you’re just unlucky in that regard: the Vols had their best season in one of college basketball’s best seasons ever.

…except for 2007. Of note here: in a vacuum, by far the hardest tournament loss we’ve had is 2007 Ohio State. The Vols lost a 20-point halftime lead on the one seed Buckeyes, made 16 threes but missed more than half of their free throws, and lost at the buzzer. It was awful. But for one, that team would’ve had the chalk scenario to get to the Final Four, even though they beat Memphis handily in the regular season. And two, as hard as that loss was, we tend not to think of it that way anymore because the Vols redeemed it. Not just by what the 2008 team did in getting to number one, but the 2010 Vols went through Ohio State to get to the Elite Eight. You never know.

The good news here: other than that 2007 squad, every Tennessee team with a reasonable chance to make the Final Four saw at least one upset in their path. That doesn’t seem to be a trend that’ll change anytime soon. Opportunities are available, and not just this season. Keep giving yourself the best possible chance in climbing the bracket with a great regular season, and then shoot your shot in March. In that regard, the Vols continue to be in good shape, and meaningful opportunities should continue to present themselves.

Go Vols.

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