Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
A historic three weeks have brought new life to Knoxville.
This is the part where I rehash all the bad things that have happened to us in the last five years, but you know them all already. So instead, how about a moment of appreciation for not just what this basketball team could do in March...but what it's already doing right now.
Regular season basketball games are funny things, because it's hard to know exactly how much any of them mean. For the really great teams who have played their way into the tournament right now, a loss like the one Florida took Tuesday night is a minor setback. For teams on the other end of the spectrum with no postseason hope outside the conference tournament, a win like the one Tennessee got would be a nice footnote in a forgettable season. So it may be that we are at the point of maximum appreciation for what Tennessee is doing right now. Because the Vols are smack dab in that middle group, where regular season games mean the most, because you're playing to keep playing.
Tuesday night had all the bubble pressure of last year's season finale against Vanderbilt, then was jacked up by two additional factors: the quality of the opponent, and the 9:00 PM tipoff. The Vanderbilt team we beat to close last season was good. This is a great Florida team. It's the kind that shows up for a Tuesday night 9:00 PM ESPN game, the sort of contest you love to get not only because it shows you're a strong program playing against what's almost certainly another strong program...but also because 9:00 PM is not for the faint of heart. There were no casual fans in that building Tuesday night, and we made both sound and fury.
It's the sort of atmosphere that comes with the great basketball we've been playing for the last three weeks and much of the last eight years. And along with it came a six point win that kept alive the hope we held so tightly during the coaching change: "Can Tennessee still be this good?"
The Vols aren't in yet, aren't ranked and won't be this season, and Cuonzo Martin is yet to win a single NCAA Tournament game. But whatever good can be done in the regular season, the Vols have done all of it and more in the last three weeks.
It's not just a six game winning streak; we won eight of nine to close last year, that part is familiar. It's the who and the how that make the biggest difference. Here's who Tennessee beat during that final run last season: Georgia, South Carolina, at #8 Florida, Arkansas, lost at Alabama, Ole Miss, at South Carolina, at LSU, Vanderbilt. This was a great and inspiring run to be sure. But ten years from now, will you still be talking about it?
Because what's happened in the last six games is way more than a winning streak.
Sure, it started with a close win at South Carolina. But it really started in a 12 point win at Vanderbilt. That phrase alone - "a 12 point win at Vanderbilt" - is cause for celebration in any season, even in a down year for the Dores. It's a testament to what came next that some have already forgotten about it.
Nevermind three weeks, here's what Tennessee has done in a span of eleven days: beat Kentucky by 30, won a four overtime game, then beat one of the best teams in the nation. (We also played a very entertaining game against LSU.) The first two of those things had never happened before. What happened Tuesday tends to happen every time we play Florida. Either way, this is a historic moment for Tennessee Basketball.
I don't know if we've had a better or more memorable three week stretch in the regular season in a positive sense. The run the Vols went on after the January 1 arrests in 2010 was memorable and included the big Kansas win, but the other W's lacked the same firepower. This run has the same "Can you believe we're doing this?!" bent with the stakes even higher as the season draws to a close, and along the way we've taken down our three biggest rivals (give or take your opinion of Memphis).
We've seen Trae Golden return, Jordan McRae arrive, and Jarnell Stokes dominate the glass like no one I've ever seen in an orange uniform. All three are routinely putting up career numbers in the last three weeks. And the rest of the team is doing their part. Kenny Hall was huge against Kentucky. Brandon Lopez and Quinton Chievous did well for us Tuesday night. And Skylar McBee is doing exactly what we needed him to do at the time we needed it most.
Given enough time, teams will take on the nature of their head coach. And this Tennessee team is doing so right now. It's more than just defense, it's toughness. We're not merely surviving, we're playing great basketball.
In the darkest days of this athletic department, this basketball team is becoming more than just a good story. Last year's run was fun because it came out of nowhere, made you believe in Cuonzo, and gave us something to care about. After the win over Florida, this run is about more than whether we'll make the tournament (a question the Vols have to keep answering). Now, I'm starting to ask questions about just how good we could possibly be.
Tennessee at the peak of its powers under Fulmer in football and Pearl in basketball was about a simple truth: no matter the opponent, every night out we believed we could win. And that's because far more often than not, we did win. And now you're seeing that again through Cuonzo, against not just the South Carolinas of the SEC world, but against Kentucky by 30, against Texas A&M in four overtimes, and against #8 Florida. The things we most hoped were true about this basketball team in preseason - that we would have a chance to beat anybody - are coming true as the calendar turns to March.
We're not there yet...and that's exciting. This team can play better than it played Tuesday night. We're still growing, and we've got three games to go before tournaments come calling. We may remember the 30 point beatdown and the four overtimes for the rest of our lives. But if we want this run to signify something? To make Tuesday's win stick, to make the opportunity we fought for and won retain its value, and to make everything we hope it says about Cuonzo Martin and our program remain true...we have to keep winning. Unusual games and unusual endings always get remembered. But the biggest wins of all in the regular season only stick around in our memory if our team does the same in the postseason. This win over Florida and the last three weeks could be a moment we look back to in the near future and say this was the time, these weeks in February, when we ascended under Cuonzo. This was the time when we proved we weren't going away, but going forward with our new head coach. But that can only be true if we keep going forward, and these three weeks turn into five.
The work is not done, the task is not finished, and your dancing shoes may be back out of the closet and shined up real nice after Tuesday night...but they're not a perfect fit just yet. We've got a little more work to do to make sure the big work we've done recently will still be standing in the end.
In our darkest days, these last three weeks have been an illuminating time of pure hope and joy. You may have forgotten what it's like to pull for a winner, but I bet it came back to you real quick. Tennessee is winning memorable and meaningful games, and playing a brand of basketball that would give anybody in the country a run for their money. It's great to be a Tennessee Vol.
And I'm having way too much fun for it to all go away.
Don't stop now. Beat Georgia.