The Tennessee Waltz is beauty and heartbreak. And for the last two weeks, we've danced it as well as we knew how.
It was no different today, in another to-the-finish matchup with another good team. Both teams came to play, both teams answered challenges throughout, and in the end...Michigan State was one point better.
Congrats to those guys, who were playing in their seventh Elite Eight in the last twelve years, an incredible feat. The progression of Tennessee Basketball under Bruce Pearl - which we'll celebrate more fully in the coming week when we're not feeling so depressed - has put the Vols in position to stand toe-to-toe with the Michigan States of the world in the Elite Eight. Rebounds and turnovers ending up being dead even in this game, and both teams showed they could play at a quick pace in the first half, and a slowdown game in the second. Durrell Summers was lights out with 21 points on 4 of 6 from three, and the Vols once again got great play from Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince, and Brian Williams. Michigan State also blocked a seson-high 8 shots, any one of which could've been the difference in the game. So it goes in March.
When the pain from today's loss fades, we're going to celebrate this team like none before it. And the pain should be somewhat subdued by 9:00 PM EDT tonight, when the Vols return home from St. Louis and you can meet them at the airport.
The pain itself exists only because of this team, who put us in position to talk about the Final Four with a straight face, and was one point away from experiencing it. We've never been this close before.
This team took the next step for this program: the Elite Eight is no longer the goal, but the Final Four. The Vols are bringing in a recruiting class that's currently ranked 4th in the nation by Rivals. The talent gap between Tennessee and everyone else is closing.
But it'll truly be an accomplishment if the next Tennessee teams can match this one in heart, fight, and will to win. Without our best player, we beat Kansas, Kentucky, and Ohio State, and went deeper than any Tennessee team has ever gone. This team moved the story forward, and has been its greatest chapter. And I hate having to write about them in the past-tense.
Now we know just how much we have lost. We know what it's like to come to the edge of the Final Four. We know we'll miss Wayne, J.P., and Bobby terribly, both as players and as people.
And we know that because of this team, Tennessee Basketball will never be the same. We will miss these guys so much...but because of them, we have never been more encouraged about where the program goes next.