One could dissect Tennessee's loss to Michigan State yesterday by working backwards through a chain of events that explained the final outcome. But while we might have been surprised to find ourselves resigned to an impossible desperation three at the end of the game, you would do well to reflect on another surprise: that we were one shot from the Final Four to begin with.
J.P. Prince's last second desperation heave to advance the Tennessee Volunteers to the Final Four was not exactly what anyone not wearing Spartan green wanted to see. The thing was flat and alarmingly short, and many Vol fans immediately questioned why Bruce Pearl drew up the final play for Prince rather than a three-point specialist like Cameron Tatum or even Scotty Hopson. We didn't make that shot, and we lost.
But we shouldn't even have been there. A last second desperation play wouldn't have been necessary if Prince hadn't fouled Michigan State's Raymar Morgan with 1.8 seconds remaining in a tied game. Pajamas, of course, doesn't believe that he actually fouled the guy, but there was Morgan at the free throw line, hitting the first to give the Spartans a one point lead and missing the second on purpose in an attempt to drain the clock. So yeah, the last second foul in a tie game might have done us in more than the missed half court shot to tie the game.
But we shouldn't have been there, either. Either Prince or Brian Williams pretty much had to foul (at the least, defend aggressively) because they were at a positional disadvantage with Morgan almost directly under the basket in a tie game with seconds remaining. According to Pearl, the team didn't get back defensively and didn't get matched up properly, and so Michigan State "got way too good a look." So maybe the real reason we lost was because of poor transitional defense at crunch time.
But again, we shouldn't have been there. Had Williams either secured the rebound or tipped in Scotty Hopson's missed free throw with 11 seconds remaining, we would have either had the lead or the ball for the last possession. So blame Williams for failure to get the all-important 50-50 ball. Or blame Hopson for not hitting his second free throw, which would have given the Vols a one point lead and allowed the defense to get back and get position.
But let's be honest, it never should have come down to the final 11 seconds, either. Perhaps if Wayne Chism had spent more time down in the post rather than on the perimeter, or his teammates had gotten him the ball down there more often, the Spartans wouldn't have gone on that 14-1 run midway through the second half, and we could have padded the lead.
But here's the thing: we never should have been there. We never should have been playing for the Final Four anyway.
Few expected Bruce Pearl and the Tennessee Volunteers to be playing in the Elite Eight. Shoot, most everyone figured the NCAA Tournament itself was a long shot after January 1. And yet there we were, and it was directly attributable to J.P. Prince's confident aggression, Brian Williams' rebounding and defense, Scotty Hopson's shot and driving ability, Wayne Chism's combination of perimeter shooting and post-dominance, and the rest of the Vols knowing their roles and playing them to the absolute best of their individual and collective abilities.
No, we lost the Michigan State game because the Spartans were a grand total of one point better on that particular day. Just as there was a chain of events that ultimately led to yesterday's loss, there was an even longer, stronger chain that bound this team together and propelled them to a place this program has never been before, and each and every player played a bigger role in getting there than anyone did in losing a one point game in an Elite Eight game.
Weezy got it right when he focused on the first 36 games rather than the disappointing conclusion to the 37th. This team won 28 games, second most in program history. They upset No.1 Kansas, No. 2 Kentucky, and No. 5 Ohio State, and they nearly made the Final Four. Prince scored in double figures in all four tournament games, and Chism ended his career as the Vols' all-time NCAA Tourney scoring and rebound leader. The team filled a neutral venue with a vast majority of Vol fans, and they were appropriately given a hero's welcome when they returned home to Knoxville last night.
So this team ended its season in the Elite Eight with a team-effort loss, which is appropriate, because it was a consummate team effort that got them there.