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Tennessee’s regular season achievements and postseason heartbreak leave fans with a dilemma

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Tennessee had a great regular season for the second straight year — and a disappointing postseason exit to match. How should fans look back on this team?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Tennessee Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

With now several days to digest and reflect upon Tennessee’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Purdue, I began to wonder how this Tennessee basketball team will be remembered. But as is the case with anything in life, the answer to that will vary wildly. Maybe the more important question is, how should it be remembered?

From November until the very end, this group was one of the most fun teams not just in Tennessee basketball history, but that I have ever watched in sports. This Vols team was a group of underdogs which fought its way up from the bottom of the SEC to the No. 1 ranking in the country and one which was endlessly likable and endearing. Every time it stepped on the court, you could see how much chemistry the team had and how much the players all truly cherished playing with each other.

After an overtime loss to then-No. 2 Kansas on Thanksgiving weekend, Tennessee looked like a bona fide national championship contender for two months, reeling off a program-record 19 consecutive wins.

The Vols went on to beat No. 1 Gonzaga on a neutral court in one of the best college basketball games of the year. They went 6-1 versus rivals Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida. Their 31 wins tied the program record for a season. They were ranked No. 1 for four of the five weeks in program history.

Not to mention Rick Barnes winning the USBWA National Coach of the Year award, Grant Williams winning a second consecutive SEC Player of the Year award and being a First Team All-American and Admiral Schofield finishing his Tennessee career as a First Team All-SEC performer.

But with what can only be considered an untimely exit from the NCAA Tournament in the regional semifinal, does any of that matter? The dilemma lies in the truly remarkable nature of the team’s accomplishments contrasted against another disappointing ending.

This Tennessee basketball team offered a plethora of amazing moments. But how should those be weighed against a second straight heartbreaking defeat to end the season?

I ask because I’m honestly unsure. Again, this basketball season provided some moments fans will remember fondly for the rest of their lives. But now any of those moments will indelibly be followed by Williams’ go-ahead dunk, the ball probably going out off Carsen Edwards on Purdue’s final possession and then Lamonte Turner’s “foul”.

I think much of the way this Tennessee basketball team will be remembered is actually dependent upon what happens in the 2019-20 season — which I believe could easily be tapped as the most important in program history.

If Williams and Jordan Bone return to accompany five-star Josiah James and the Vols continue to ride the positive momentum built under Barnes to the program’s first Final Four appearance, the last two years will be remembered as the building blocks of one of the best eras of Tennessee basketball ever. But if Williams departs for the NBA and Tennessee fails to make it past a third game in the NCAA Tournament yet again, Vols fans may be forever and incurably haunted by Purdue and Loyola-Chicago.

Tennessee finds itself at the crossroads of being really good and wanting so desperately to be great. But the bottom line is this was supposed to be when the leap occurred — and it didn’t. And with an opportunity to solidify a legacy slipping out of grasp once again, one has to wonder how many more chances the Vols will get.