The Sweet 16: The Ceiling of Tennessee Basketball

The best part about winning two games in the NCAA Tournament is that the season gains another week:  we can still breakdown matchups, entertain notions of how far this team can truly go, and care about basketball for at least another six days.  There are only sixteen teams in all of college basketball who are still invested in the 2010 season, only sixteen teams who can win the National Championship...and we're fortunate enough to be one of them.

We've been here before, three times in the last decade and now for the third time under Pearl.  We've come this far, but no further.  The Vols have the most tradition-rich basketball program in the SEC after Kentucky...and yet, we've never played in a Regional Final.

Which means every time we get here - and it's becoming a welcome habit - we know we're one win away from saying we saw the best team in the history of Tennessee Basketball.  You can compare talent all day, though you don't get this far without it.  But success in college basketball is a question answered only in March, and right now this team - this crazy team - has a chance to stand where no Tennessee team has ever stood.

Since just making it this far is something we've only done in the last ten years, it hasn't gotten old yet.  Each of the three previous teams the Vols have sent to the Sweet 16 had talent, and each of them were happy to be there...but each of Tennessee's three Sweet 16 losses have been especially heartbreaking, all for different reasons.  As we begin another glorious week of tournament basketball, we take a look back at each of those three games, to note how rare and special this opportunity is...and to reinforce some old lessons.

This is also a good place to point out that the NCAA has put every game from the Sweet 16 on from the last ten years online, in its entirety, at vault.ncaa.com.  You can check out all of these games and any other March classics since 2000 there.  And as usual, statsheet.com was a tremendous help in putting this together.

2000:  (8) North Carolina 74 - (4) Tennessee 69 (Austin, TX)

Under Jerry Green, the Vols had a nice progression working:  made the tournament in 1998, got to the second round in 1999, and then finally broke through to the Sweet 16 in 2000.  Among the candidates for Tennessee's most talented team ever is this group, featuring Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, Isiah Victor, and C.J. Black.  The Vols also signed a talented freshman class that included Ron Slay and Jon Higgins, and lost only five games in the regular season.  After surviving Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round 63-58, the Vols faced 5 seed and defending National Champion UConn in the second round.  Khalid El-Amin was banged up and only played 13 minutes, and the Vols took advantage with 18 points from Tony Harris in a satisfying 65-51 win - anytime Tennessee beats UConn in basketball, it's fun, and this one put us in the Sweet 16 for the first time ever.

In 2000 the South Region went crazy:  the Vols advanced to the second weekend, but the top three seeds did not, with Stanford, Cincinnati, and Ohio State all going down in the second round.  That meant Tennessee would be the highest seeded team in Austin, matched against a rebuilding North Carolina squad in the Sweet 16, with (6) Miami and (7) Tulsa on the other side.  We'd just made the Sweet 16 for the first time ever, and already we were favored to make the Final Four.

Against Carolina, it was a battle from the start, and the Vols led by only three at halftime.  Tennessee got great work from C.J. Black and Slay off the bench on the inside, as the two combined for 29 points and 12 rebounds against Brendan Haywood, with a cameo from Julius Peppers.  The Vols took a 64-57 lead with 4:48 to play on two Yarbrough free throws, which made the Vols 21 of 24 on the day from the stripe.  Ed Cota had just picked up his fourth foul.  Life was great.

But the Vols wouldn't shoot another free throw.  Joseph Forte, as a freshman, drained a three to make it 64-60, and after a turnover Jason Capel scored inside to make it 64-62.  On the next possession, Slay was called for traveling, and Cota buried a contested jumper in the paint, and in less than two minutes Carolina had erased the entire lead, tying the game at 64-64 with 3:02 to play.

If this game was the apex of the Jerry Green Era, the last three minutes were a sign of things to come, as I'm pretty sure they set the record for the number of times the phrase "WHAT ARE WE DOING?!" has been used in that span.  The Vols' swagger turned into panic, with a shot clock violation making it three turnovers in a row.  Cota scored on a drive on the other end to give Carolina a 66-64 lead; the Tar Heels were 4 for 4 on their last four possessions, and the Vols had turned it over on their last three.  Bad decision making continued when Tony Harris jacked an NBA three with 10 on the shot clock, and Carolina grabbed the rebound.  The Vols seemed to get a break when Peppers scored with a second left on the shot clock, but the refs deemed that the buzzer had gone off (no replay allowed ten years ago).  But Slay missed on the inside on the other end with 35 seconds to play, Carolina hit two free throws, and then Slay jacked an NBA three that was no good.

The Tar Heels knocked down more free throws to seal it, winning by five.  In the blink of an eye, Tennessee went from up seven with less than five to play, to going home.  The Vols played with no discipline and no purpose in the last five minutes, turning the ball over and then taking terrible shots.  The Final Four that should've been was stolen away, and Carolina won 74-69.  Watch the last five minutes (or the whole game) here.

The Lesson:  Take advantage of a favorable draw

It doesn't get any better than what this team had, heading to the Sweet 16 as the highest seeded team in their region.  You don't get breaks like that every year, and the Vols failed to take advantage of a very easy road (on paper).  This year, Tennessee will face an Ohio State team that is every bit as good as their seeding would indicate, and has already taken advantage of an easier road by beating 14 seed Ohio in the second round.

But IF the Vols find a way to beat Ohio State, they'll play either the 9 seed Northern Iowa, or a 5 seed Michigan State team that just lost its best player for the rest of the season.  I hate that for Kalin Lucas and wish him all the best in the future, and have no bad feelings whatsoever toward Michigan State in general...but the reality is, if the Vols beat Ohio State, they'll be seeing a team they can absolutely beat in the Elite Eight.  It's not always going to be this easy.  Tennessee needs to take advantage.

 

2007:  (1) Ohio State 85 - (5) Tennessee 84 (San Antonio, TX)

Remember the Alamo.

This was Bruce Pearl's second season in Knoxville, a year that started with us questioning whether or not 2006 was a fluke, and ended in the Sweet 16.  We hadn't been in seven years, and Pearl had built a much more loyal following through personality and style of play than Jerry Green was ever able to amass, so this felt like a bigger deal. 

We were playing with house money, going against the numer one team in the country in a game we were never expected to win.  We were truly happy to be there, and we knew that the team we had coming back in 2008 would be the real threat.  Whatever happened, we would be okay with it.

And then, what actually happened was the one outcome none of us saw coming.

The Vols and Ohio State had seen each other already in 2007, a 68-66 UT loss in Columbus.  So yeah, we knew we could play with these guys, even though they had Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and a bunch of other guys who were more talented than everyone wearing orange.  The '07 Vols played Dane Bradshaw at power forward, which meant we could speed the game up and put a ton of shooters on the floor.  We knew that if this team was hot, we could give anybody a run for their money.

In the first half of this game, Tennessee wasn't just hot - we were playing our own version of NBA Jam, and everyone was on fire.  JaJuan Smith hit a three four seconds in.  After Chism missed one, Lofton and Juanny hit four in a row.  Ryan Childress hit consecutive threes.  Even Josh Tabb hit one.  The Vols made five of their first six, and finished the first half 9 of 15 from beyond the arc.  It was truly something out of a video game.

Meanwhile, the Vols were neutralizing Oden on the other end of the floor:  the future number one draft pick finished the first half with 2 points and 3 fouls.  It's the most perfect half of basketball of the Pearl Era - Tennessee led 49-29 until a three point play at the buzzer made it 49-32 at the break.

And at halftime, here's what you know:  Memphis is waiting in the Elite Eight, and not only would that be crazy fun, but the Vols had chewed Tiger High up and spit it out in Knoxville earlier in the season in an 18 point beatdown.  At halftime, much like in 2000, Tennessee is the best team in this region, and we're all seriously thinking about the Final Four.

The Vols blew a seven point lead in less than two minutes against North Carolina in 2000.  In 2007, we blew a 20 point lead in 11 minutes against Ohio State.  I'm not sure which one was worse, I only know I lost sleep on multiple nights over both. 

The Buckeyes cut it from 17 to 7 by the first media timeout in the second half, scoring on six of their first seven possessions - even though it took them another seven minutes to tie it, they let us know right away that we had a ballgame on our hands.  To the Vols' credit, we didn't lay down once the Buckeyes tied it, and when Ohio State went ahead 68-65 and the collapse was complete, Chris Lofton hit a three to tie it immediately.  When Ohio State went back up four, Ryan Childress hit another cold blooded three to pull us back within one.  We did not quit.

Another three from Juanny gave the Vols the lead back with five minutes to play, and when Conley scored to tie it, Childress buried his fourth three of the night to put the Vols up 77-74.  David Lighty - who we'll see Friday night - hit a three to tie the score again at 79-79, setting up the finish:

Out of a timeout with 2:30 to play, Ron Lewis hit a three to put the Buckeyes up 82-79.  Ten seconds later, Lofton answered again, 82-82.  Oden hit two free throws to put the Buckeyes up 84-82.  Then Tennessee's nightmare from the first meeting with Ohio State returned - Wayne Chism and Ramar Smith would both be fouled in the final minute, and both hit only one of two.  Smith's shot tied the score at 84, and Mike Conley drew a foul with six seconds to play.  Conley hit the first, missed the second, and Ramar Smith ran the length of the court and put up a shot for the win...and Greg Oden blocked it away, and the Buckeyes survived.

Tennessee shot 16 of 31 from beyond the arc, 51.6%.  Lofton hit six, and both Juanny and Childress were 4 of 5.  But while the Vols were setting the nets on fire from three, they failed at the much simpler task of shooting free throws:  Tennessee went 8 of 17 at the line in a game they lost by one point.  In two meetings against Ohio State, the Vols shot 46% at the free throw line, and lost both games by a combined three points.  All Tennessee has to do is shoot 50%, and we win both.  Three years later, we're still looking for revenge, even though the Vols beat Ohio State in Knoxville the following season.  Because we now have that opportunity, I find myself able to watch this game again for the first time since it happened - and you should too, because it's such a great game with so many clutch shots.  If we lose again on Friday, we'll probably go back to not wanting to see it, so now's your chance.

The Lesson:  Value every possession

Part of this is free throw shooting, but the reason the Vols lost has less to do with Greg Oden blocking Ramar Smith's shot, and more to do with the Vols' defensive intensity in the first four minutes of the second half.  Ohio State was very, very good...but the Vols made it far too easy for them to blow by and get back in the game.  From here on out, everybody the Vols will play is good enough to get back in a game:  no lead is safe, and the Vols have to play every possession like the season depends on it...because it does.  Tennessee will not play perfect basketball.  But they can play with poise.  Every.  Possession.  Counts.        

 

2008:  (3) Louisville 79 - (2) Tennessee 60 (Charlotte, NC)

Another group that's certainly in the conversation for best Tennessee team ever, and the one that holds the record to validate it with 31 wins on the year, these Vols got an absolutely brutal draw.  Despite having the highest end-of-season RPI of any team in the decade and the #1 strength of schedule, the Vols failed to earn a #1 seed.  Then, we were placed in the same region as North Carolina, the overall number one.  But we never got that far, because after having to face 7 seed Butler (ranked 10th in the AP poll) in the second round, the Vols ran into our old friend Rick Pitino in the Sweet 16...and we learned that sometimes your best isn't good enough.

Pitino used perimeter length in an extended 2-3 zone to eat Chris Lofton alive, holding the senior to just 3 of 15 shooting in his final game, and keeping the Vols to a cool 5 of 20 from beyond the arc.  The Cardinals made Tennessee uncomfortable from the opening tip, and built a 16 point lead in the first half.

The Vols worked it down to 7 at halftime, then got it to one at 37-36 with still more than 16 minutes to play.  That was as close as we got:  Louisville stepped on the gas and stepped on our throats, and we had no answers.  The Cards put an end to Tennessee's best season, 79-60.  You can watch this game here, though I'm not sure why you'd want to.

The Lesson:  Matchups matter

We thought going in that Tennessee was good enough to beat anybody in 2008.  But the matchup with Louisville was an absolute nightmare, with their length keeping Lofton and Juanny from doing anything productive.  Catching a break in the draw is one thing, but at this point in the tournament, matchups matter more than seeding.

How well do the Vols matchup against Ohio State?  Stay tuned...

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