No matter who's coaching, Tennessee fans have been conditioned to expect SEC tournament heartbreak. They've been the best team, they've had the best draw, and in my lifetime, they have not gotten it done. Rarely have they even made a run at it, more often going down to vastly inferior teams during the week or losing must-win games against mid-level SEC teams. The latter happened last year against Ole Miss, and it happened again today with a 58-48 loss to Alabama.
Everything that has gone wrong in Tennessee losses this year came back to haunt them this afternoon. Bad perimeter defense that lost games in Tuscaloosa (where the Tide shot 43%), Athens (where the Bulldogs shot 50%) and Knoxville against Georgia (where they shot 55%)? Check. Alabama finished 5-10 from beyond the arc, starting 5-7. Bad free throw shooting that lost games in Tuscaloosa (where the Vols went 8-16 in a three-point loss) and DC (where the Vols went 3-11 in a one-point loss)? Check. Tennessee shot just 7-14 from the stripe and missed the front ends of multiple one-and-ones. The majority of the guards suddenly going cold, which lost the game in Athens (where Richardson, McBee, and Golden combined to go 5-29 from the field)? Check. Golden, McBee, McRae, and Moore combined to shoot 6-31 from the field and 4-19 from deep. And finally, an inability to stop penetration by the opposing guards? Check. Alabama's guards drove the lane seemingly at will and combined to get to the line 19 times and convert 15 free tosses.
Tennessee did as much wrong as they could do wrong, with the exception of Josh Richardson, who seemed at times the only Vol prepared to bring the team back. He scored 16 points on 12 shots, adding 5 boards, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 0 turnovers. But it wasn't enough. Nor was another quiet double-double from Jarnell Stokes. The rest of Tennessee's perimeter players were outplayed handily on both ends of the court. They were unable to get off ball screens, letting Alabama hit from deep. They were unable to defend the drive, allowing Alabama to score inside. And they were unable to make shots.
It's been said many times this season that as Trae Golden goes, Tennessee goes, and Trae Golden went poorly on both ends of the floor. So did Jordan McRae, who finally had an off night after carrying the team for much of SEC play. McRae made just 3 of 13 shots, missed his only free throw (the front end of a one-and-one in the last four minutes), turned the ball over four times, and picked up four fouls.
While Tennessee kept the score close, they always remained just a little behind. Their last lead was 20-18, and the entire second half was played with a deficit between two and ten. And now, after yet another SEC tournament disappointment, they wait.
Tennessee finishes the regular season with a 4-4 record against the RPI top 50, a 9-10 record against the top 100, and two losses to teams below 100. La Salle, who also lost today, is 2-5 against the top 50, 6-8 against the top 100, and has one loss below 100. Virginia, who lost today, is 4-3 against the top 50, 8-4 against the top 100, and has seven losses below 100. Kentucky, who plays Vanderbilt later today, is 2-4 against the top 50, 7-9 against the top 100, and has one loss below 100.
These are the four teams with whom Tennessee has been competing for the last three places in the NCAA tournament. The Vols can state no more case, so they must hope the case they already have is enough. And they must hope teams like Iowa, Ole Miss, Alabama--who stated making their own case this afternoon--and Southern Miss do not come from behind and jump into one of the final spots. Will it be enough? Or will it be another trip to the NIT and another long summer? We wait and we hope.