Here's what's going to happen:
Either the Vols will beat Mississippi State tomorrow, and we'll all go into the NCAA Tournament on a huge wave of momentum, winners of six of seven and feeling great about ourselves. Or they'll lose to the Bulldogs, and we'll use familiar language like "inconsistent", shrug our shoulders and hope for the best in the big dance, totally unsure how far this team can last and waiting every game for another inconsistent performance to show up again. The most recent impression is always the strongest, and so much of the thought process surrounding the program will be determined tomorrow at 1:00.
But before our minds are corrupted or persuaded by the outcome of the next game, let's take a moment and look back at the last 32. This season has felt very much like a roller coaster, and every team that makes the field of 65 has to take the sum of their regular season and conference tournament experiences and play with it as the whole in March.
In the preseason, we were talking about this being Bruce Pearl's most talented team yet. Two and a half weeks ago we were worried about not just this season, but the future of the program. Now we're excited again and are one win away from getting a little delirious.
The inconsistency, I think, combined with the great success of last year's team, has made us perhaps too harsh on this team at times this season. And the final outcome of this team is yet to be written.
But looking back on what we have seen now, combined with Tennessee's play in their last six games...is it possible that the Vols are actually better than we've noticed?
Let's look at the numbers...
Tennessee: 21-11, 10-6 SEC (East Champions), SEC Tournament Finals
- 80-68 vs a fully healthy Marquette, SEC/Big East Invitational
- 79-63 vs Florida, 79-75 at Florida
- 82-79 vs South Carolina, 86-70 at South Carolina
- 94-85 vs Auburn, SEC Tournament
Okay, right, you're not impressed. But how close was this team...
- Lost to Gonzaga in overtime
- Lost to Memphis by two points
- Lost to LSU in a tie game under 2:00 to play
- Lost at Auburn by one point
- Lost to Alabama on a miracle shot at the buzzer
Three of those teams will be in the NCAA Tournament, and Auburn could still somehow sneak in. Tennessee was right there in every single one of these games, and just came up on the short end. And aside from the Alabama buzzer-beater - which was atoned for yesterday by two dozen points - all of these losses were more than five weeks ago...when the Vols weren't playing as well as they are now.
But wait, there's more...
Additional Games vs. Tournament Teams
- Beat Chattanooga & Siena
- Lost to Gonzaga, Temple and Kansas
The games against Temple and Kansas, especially, look much, much better now than they did then.
Yes, this team has played some clunkers - anytime we saw Kentucky, and the loss at Ole Miss were signs of this team at their very worst. But the Vols have still managed 21-11 against the nation's second toughest schedule, and were right there in five other matchups, three against surefire high-seed tournament teams.
Look, the title of this post is a question, not a statement. I'm not completely sold on this idea, and as stated my mindset for next week will be cemented by whatever we do against Mississippi State tomorrow.
But even when we weren't playing our best basketball, we were three plays away from being 24-8 and being talked about as a 3-4 seed. Now that we think we're seeing our best basketball - check back with me tomorrow - maybe we look at the whole a little bit differently. Maybe...maybe...this team is still capable of all the things we thought they would be at the start of the season.
Maybe these Vols, especially now, are better than we've been giving them credit for; to the outside eye, a team playing as hot and as well as we are, against the schedule we've played, with that many close losses...if the Vols win the SEC Tournament, you're going to hear so many analysts pick them as a sleeper in their region, it's going to make you nervous. The facts are there.
Tomorrow, you'll either tell me I'm wrong because inconsistency showed up again in a loss...or we'll win, and all of this will become excess fuel on the fire that would've been burning anyway.
We'll see. But maybe it's been there all along.