In five hours, Tennessee's season is going to go one of two ways.
Neither of them are bad, really, considering where we've been already this year. The expectations for Bruce Pearl's fifth team have changed so often, it's been hard to get a feel for how we should ultimately define success for this group. And Pearl's tenure has been so successful, sometimes it's easy for us as fans to take things for granted.
Consider the roller coaster of expectation this season has been:
- November 5: Vols ranked 10th in preseason AP poll - Kentucky is playing a ton of freshmen and there's no way they'll be as good as advertised, and no reason to concede the SEC Championship to them or anyone else. We hope this is the talented and incredibly experienced group that'll finally take us to the Elite Eight.
- November 23: Vols lose in top ten showdown with Purdue by one point - disappointing, but validates the idea that Tennessee can stand toe-to-toe with the best teams in college basketball, and could ultimately be one of those teams themselves.
- December 19: USC and point guard Mike Gerrity, playing his first game of the season, torch the Vols in LA in the worst loss of the Bruce Pearl Era, 77-55. All the things that frustrated us about the '09 team come back into play: poor shot selection, one-on-five offense, opposing guards having career nights, and a general lack of focus. How can we expect this year to be any different when we're using the exact same players?
- December 31: The Vols lock down Memphis at the FedEx Forum in a gritty 66-59 win. You find reason to believe in this team on the road again, you've seen they can play defense, and still hope the best is yet to come.
- January 1: Tyler Smith, Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins are arrested on drug and weapon possession charges. The four are suspended indefinitely, Tyler Smith is ultimately dismissed, and all of Tennessee's expectations are immediately disregarded. The Vols will play six scholarship players and three walk-ons, and will face Charlotte, #1 Kansas, and then the SEC slate. Just making the NCAA Tournament, even after a 10-2 start, becomes the primary goal, and the season is now about survival.
- January 10: In front of a passionate crowd in Knoxville, six scholarship players and three walk-ons stun #1 Kansas 76-68, with the Vols getting contributions from the entire roster. Combined with a 17 point win over Charlotte, hope remains that this team could be competitive after all.
- January 19: The Vols jump out to a 3-0 start to SEC play with a 63-56 win at Alabama. This comes on the heels of an overtime win against Ole Miss and a 26 point beatdown of Auburn. The Vols are 15-2, back in the top ten at #8, and there's something special about this team...
- January 27: After getting blown out in Athens and giving Georgia their first SEC win of the season and their first ever win against Bruce Pearl, the Vols fall 85-76 to Vanderbilt in Knoxville, the first Commodore win in Thompson-Boling against the orange blazer. The Vols allow shooting percentages over 50 in both games, several bench players disappear from the stat sheet, and the Vols have been unable to get Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins to contribute in their return. At 15-4 but just 3-2 in the SEC, the growing concern is that everything in the previous win streak was smoke and mirrors.
- February 6: After beating Florida thanks to an Alex Tyus rim out, and struggling down the stretch to hold off a terrible LSU team, the Vols blow out South Carolina 79-53. Wayne Chism continues to step up to lead this team, Brian Williams returns to the bench, and the Vols are 18-4, 6-2 in the SEC, and back on steady ground for the NCAA Tournament.
College basketball is a marathon, only becoming a sprint in tournament play. But as we now enter the second half of the conference season, we've seen 22 games from this Tennessee team and 10 without Tyler Smith. We should, at this point, know what we've got.
But the week ahead provides a unique opportunity. Tennessee will go to Nashville and Lexington, where Bruce Pearl is 3-6 in four years. And even if the Vols lose on the road to two very good teams, the Vols would still be 18-6, 6-4 in the SEC, and still have every opportunity to get in the tournament field on a higher line in the bracket than the 9 seed they were handed last year. Given everything that's happened, the Vols will still have a chance to have a season we could all feel good about even if they go 0-2 this week.
But today, Tennessee still controls its own destiny in the SEC Championship race. The Vols are at 12th in both polls and a 4 seed in most bracketology projections.
Is Tennessee truly one of the 12 best teams in college basketball? We're about to find out.
Here's why tonight is so interesting: Kentucky is really, really good. Rupp Arena is where Tennessee and everyone else in the SEC goes to die. The Vols can lose at Kentucky and still be an elite team. But they cannot go 0-2 this week and still be in that conversation.
We'll entertain fantasies of going 2-0 this week, winning at Rupp, and everything that would mean...once we get the first one. If Tennessee is truly a championship contender, they almost have to win tonight. If Vanderbilt wins, not only would the Vols need a highly unlikely win in Lexington to play their way back into the conversation, but the Vols would still be behind the Dores in the standings, and would lose every tiebreaker via the season sweep (another reason why a loss at Kentucky wouldn't hurt: they still have to come to Knoxville, while Vandy already won here). The Vols would be looking at a third place finish in the SEC East as the most probable goal.
And again...if the Vols lose tonight and on Saturday, it's okay. This team has already given us a lot to be proud of, and they'll still have every opportunity to finish in the same way: make the tournament, and do so at a seed high enough to give themselves a shot to make the second weekend. All of that will still be on the table no matter what happens this week (barring a pair of 20 point beatdowns), and if these Vols find a way to make the Sweet 16, we'll all agree that this team has had a great year.
But if the Vols win tonight, they'll go to Rupp Arena with first place in the SEC on the line. And more than that, they'll have an additional resume win and an additional confidence boost that they are as good as the polls think they are. And at the end of this week, we'll have yet another definition of success for this team.
We have a chance to be good either way. But this week, we have a chance to be great. It's not must-win...but it is an incredible opportunity.
Tennessee has turned into a good team, despite all the circumstances, and a good season will still be in play no matter what happens this week.
But they've also played their way into an opportunity for something more. And if Tennessee is a championship-caliber team, we'll see it tonight.