If there's a margin for error and a sample size of the last three years, we've long since learned that this Tennessee squad will gleefully careen into that error, sending missed opportunities in all directions. You probably can recite the major ones off the top of your head: Xavier, UNLV, Georgetown and Virginia from last year, and now two games against a mediocre Texas A&M squad, the latter of which came in a single OT instead of the four we saw last year. Regardless, today goes into the books as a 68-65 loss in College Station and goes onto the pile of What Might Have Been.
Barring a run in the SEC Tournament to Saturday at least (or a lot of losses by a lot of other bubble teams), today's probably the end of Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes for the third straight season. It's not impossible in the sense that very little is impossible; however, we're veering into unlikely territory at this point.
The game unfolded a lot like Tennessee's 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons; get behind early, catch up and open up a lead middle-late, pull it down to the wire, then fall just short. (Stop me if you've heard this before.) By this point, you know the usual Tennessee performers - Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, Josh Richardson - who all played no less than 38 minutes. Save Antonio Barton - who played 32 because you need five guys on the court at all times, even if too many players foul out (thanks, Lakers!) - everyone else on the team only played 33 minutes combined. Fourteen of those went to starter Darius Thompson, making the bench players Barton, Armani Moore, and Derek Reese.
Credit Cuonzo Martin for figuring out this team isn't deep, but at this point it's also his team, so that cuts both ways.
Also, if I never seen Antawn Space take another three in my life, I'll be happy. Yeah, he had the game-winning three again. Four Aggies finished in double figures, but eight of the nine Aggies who saw the court scored. Tennessee only had five - the big four and two big Barton free throws toward the tail end of regulation.
Other than that, those 33 minutes referenced up above filled the stat line thusly: 0/6, 3 boards, 3 assists, 2 turnovers, a steal, a block, and a foul. If you want to include Barton in that: 65 minutes, 0/11, 2 points, 5 boards, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, a steal, a block, and four fouls. Tennessee isn't going to win games if they're giving away 29% of the minutes to a vacant space wearing orange, period. That means one of two things; someone on the team needs to step up right now, or we need to figure out a way to clone McRae ...also right now. Then make him a true freshman, because I get the shivers when I think about next season's squad.
What will get lost in this game: Maymon had a fantastic game, throwing up a 16/12 on only 9 shots. Richardson was decent, putting up 11/2/2 on 10 shots, and Stokes had a double-double in the first half alone, somehow finishing on a 16/16. Then again, here's the other part of that: nobody else on Tennessee had more than two rebounds.
What will not get lost in this game: the bizarro end-of-regulation sequence that saw Martin call timeout as Tennessee was struggling for a late-game shot. The difference between today and most other games: Antonio Barton actually made a three as the clock expired - but after the timeout. In a vacuum, the timeout was probably a good thing, and the secondary result - Stokes getting a layup for the tie with an and-one for the win - was a much better option than a somewhat off-balance three from the wing from a guy who went 0/5 otherwise. Stokes, as you can probably figure out, missed the FT.
That ....happens. I mean, it does, and it's not common, and honestly? The timeout was the right call. It's a common bad-baseball-analysis thing to overinterpret the result of an action while ignoring the thought process, and here's how I'd phrase this one: in a vacuum, do you want Antonio Barton shooting a three or Jarnell Stokes on the block? The answer, I suspect, is going to be Stokes. I get why people will be upset over it, but Barton doesn't hit that shot often and I'd take Stokes over the vast majority of posts at that point. Of course, the way it unfolded was the unluckiest way possible, and stop me if you've heard that before too.
The only thing left at this point during the regular season needs to be wins. Whether or not that actually matters is an academic debate, and we're getting pretty good at those. From where I'm at, I see no way for this team to be competitive if only four people show up. Blame the guys on the squad if you'd like, but the trend over Martin's tenure has been to have one big signing and a bunch of - at this point, I think we can say it - questionable depth. That's part of why I wrote this. If Martin can't trust the guys he's bringing in (save one) in February to put together anything that looks like quality minutes, why are we to trust his ability to compose a team?
The top end of this team - Stokes, McRae, Maymon, Richardson - can get you a tournament bid. The rest of the team, apparently, can't. If Tennessee gets anything - literally, like four points in 60 minutes anything - they win this game. And at year three of the same story with different names, we're getting pretty good at hosting NIT games. Whether or not that's what we want to be good at is the question.
I keep coming back to the idea of being just short - 2011-12, 2012-13, this year so far, and this game. I don't know what - or who - the 2014-15 answer is, but at this point I'm getting pretty sure I know what - and who - it isn't.