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The aftermath: Tennessee fizzled in tournament season, but optimism will be at an all time high next season

Tough pill to swallow, but Tennessee fans should hold their head up high. The basketball program is in a good spot.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Wright State vs Tennessee Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s over. Just like that it’s all over for Tennessee basketball. It’s hard to accept or come to terms with, but that’s the nature of a single elimination tournament. That’s what makes March, well — March.

Tennessee went 26-9, captured a share of the SEC Championship, completed the regular season sweep of Kentucky and made a Sunday appearance in the SEC Tournament. Yet it all feels empty, thanks to a jumper from Clayton Custer that hit every part of the rim and dropped on Saturday night.

That game against Loyola-Chicago is still tough to swallow, considering Kyle Alexander’s absence and honestly — the sheer amount of bounces at the rim that went the Ramblers’ way. If just one of those bounces goes Tennessee’s way, we’re all gearing up for a trip to the sweet sixteen.

But that’s March.

For me, I look to the middle stages of each half. Tennessee’s offense was missing in action for far too long in key stretches. The Vols allowed Loyola-Chicago to come back and take the lead after jumping out to a 15-6 advantage. The Ramblers took the lead back at 23-22. They same thing happened in the second half as Loyola built an 11 point lead.

Part of that was Admiral Schofield getting into foul trouble. Part of that was Loyola totally denying Grant Williams the ball on the block. Tennessee’s offense was just completely out of sorts.

A lot of times, the defense felt a step behind. They were slow to rotate and close out on shooters. They allowed too many looks at the rim. A lot of that can be traced back to Kyle Alexander not being available.

It just wasn’t in the cards for Tennessee. And let’s not forget — that a pretty dad-gum good basketball team they just played. Loyola hasn’t lost since January and sits inside the top 40 of KenPom’s rankings. They aren’t some random Cinderella that hit a bunch of threes. Still, Tennessee probably wins that game with Alexander in the lineup, which makes all of this that much harder to take.

I really hate taking the “wait till next year” stance here, but with everyone outside of James Daniel set to return, it’s hard to contain the optimism. That’s another offseason of improvement and chemistry for nearly an entire roster, which is something that’s unheard of in today’s college basketball scene.

Tennessee has one open scholarship to give. It’s been widely noted that they’re targeting the nation’s No. 7 overall player in Anfernee Simons with that vacancy. We’ll see if they’re able to wrestle him away from Florida.

Even if they don’t land Simons, another year’s worth of growth for key reserves like Derrick Walker and Yves Pons is exciting to think about. Rick Barnes has a great track record of elevating guys from year to year. Walker and Pons seem like good bets to make a jump next season.

Throw those improvements in with a roster that already features Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield and you may really have something.

All of that is fine to think about. It’s exciting. It’s still not taking the sting out of how things played out last night. The good news is that Tennessee basketball is back. The bad news? We have to wait until November to get this taste out of our mouth.