There’s a shaky optimism emanating throughout the Big Orange nation right about now. The Tennessee Volunteers captured a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament bracket, shortly after a string of impressive performances to end the season. Their first round matchup will be against an Oregon State team who more or less stole a spot with a PAC-12 tournament championship. There are no easy games in March Madness, but Tennessee probably feels better about a game against Oregon State than most other teams in the tournament.
Beyond that is anyone’s guess. Oklahoma State and Liberty are both very formidable opponents, and one of those would await Tennessee if they do indeed overcome the Beavers. Yet the end of the season did showcase a form of the team which we truthfully haven’t seen since the first 10 games...which gives some sort of optimism heading into the Big Dance.
Even if there was a long line of road bumps along the way.
This roller coaster of a season was undoubtedly better than last year’s disappointment. This team actually secured a spot in the tournament, won a batch of games against decent opponents, and was able to notch a few victories over hated opponents (namely Kentucky and Florida).
They were also maddeningly inconsistent down the back half of the schedule. We all accepted that the 10-1 start was a bit deceiving and could not be kept up as the team headed into the meat of their SEC games. We just didn’t think that finishing the regular season on a 8-7 skid (only 6-6 in conference) would be the conclusion.
More discouraging than any win-loss record? The regression of John Fulkerson, lack of development with any frontcourt players not named Yves Pons, and frustration with Santiago Vescovi as point guard. All of these combined to restrict Tennessee from reaching their ceiling.
That’s where Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson come in. They’re truly the saviors of this team’s expectations. They haven’t been all that consistent either, but they have an ability to score that essentially no one else on the team can replicate. It hasn’t always worked out, but they give you hope that maybe—just maybe—Tennessee can fire on all cylinders when they need to.
But the tradeoff means both guys are almost certainly gone to the NBA.
The solution to these disappointments? Just win. Fans liked the last few games of the season and the defensive intensity. Fans liked watching the young talent shine through. They even liked watching forgotten players (Uros Plavsic for example) contribute.
No one expects a championship. But a couple wins with a Sweet 16 appearance? Perfectly fine, and gives the fanbase a bright spot of a forgettable athletic year. Losing games to Alabama or Ole Miss or whoever, that hurts. But those losses combined wouldn’t hurt as much as getting bounced in the first round.
Anything beyond that is just gravy.
Nothing is make-or-break for Rick Barnes at this point in his career. Yet, I think you’re starting to see some discontent within Tennessee’s fanbase about what’s developed since the Sweet 16 run a couple years back. It just looks like Tennessee’s team is suffering from a lack of depth and talent beyond the starting five. When you’re six years into the program, that’s not a good sign. Combine that with back-to-back years of disappointment, and there’s a lot of uncertainty with how Barnes has constructed this roster for the future.
There’s no big red panic button that needs to be smashed just yet—but there are some questions that need answering.
Those questions can at least be placated with a tournament run. Win a couple of games (or more), bring in a loaded recruiting class, and bring more signs of development. That’s the track Tennessee should be on, and that’s the track that starts Friday.