Heartbreak is no stranger to a Tennessee sports fan. It plays out in almost Shakespearean fashion each and every year when a sliver of hope is presented through a team, and outside of the rare exceptions that are Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols basketball’s legendary run of six national championships between 1987 and 1998, and Phillip Fulmer’s ascension to the top of college football’s mountain in 1998, the confetti and jubilation has been few and far between since.
Enter Tennessee men’s basketball. It can be argued that no program anywhere in the country encapsulates the level of hopefulness and hopelessness that Tennessee basketball can. It’s an enigma in it of itself in every way, transcending coaches and players alike.
Since Ray Mears took over as head coach of Tennessee’s basketball program back in 1962, just three of the nine coaches who coached multiple seasons failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen. That makes six coaches, Mears in 1967, Don DeVoe in 1981, Jerry Green in 2000, Bruce Pearl in 2007, 2008 and 2010, Cuonzo Martin in 2013, and Rick Barnes in 2019, who got to the doorstep of the Elite Eight. Only in 2010 did they break through that door before falling a point short of the Final Four.
All but once, Tennessee finds itself on the wrong end of a Sweet Sixteen final score. The program overall feels like one giant, painful example of Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s General Laws are hilariously bleak, and they epitomize Tennessee basketball in every way. The very simple generalization is that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and oh boy, Vols fans, don’t we know that pain.
From falling to Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen in 2009 only to avenge that win in the same round in 2010 just to fall by a single point to Michigan State in the Elite Eight, Tennessee fans know no peace. It is a constant roller coaster of emotions, and, despite knowing better, we always let ourselves have hope. Hope is a fickle treat that rarely shines through, but it tastes oh so good that we continue to trick ourselves into thinking it’ll ever be that good again.
Welcome to the 2021-22 season of Tennessee basketball. The ups and downs came early, with a blowout loss against Villanova at Mohegan Sun where the Vols shot 5-of-28 from three, followed by a dominant victory against North Carolina where they shot 9-of-20 from deep just a day later, sparking a four game win streak. The end of that non-conference season was punctuated by two games: a brutal 57-52 loss at MSG against Texas Tech where the Vols shot 6-of-39 from three and a huge win over Arizona at home. Tennessee didn’t shoot well from three in that game, but the loud home crowd and swarming defense made up for it in a big way.
After that game, though, the Vols got off to a shaky start in conference play, losing three of their first five, shooting a paltry 31.3 percent from three. The defense was excellent, but it could only do so much when they just couldn’t knock down shots when they needed to.
This feels like a great time to talk about Chekhov’s Gun. Established by 19th century Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, Chekhov’s Gun is an unspoken agreement between writer and reader that they won’t make false promises. Chekhov famously has said “If there’s a gun on the wall in act one...you must fire the gun by act three.”
There are great literal examples of Chekhov’s Gun like Chekhov’s own work such as The Seagull where the main character Konstantin shoots a seagull and brings the gun onstage early in the first act only to turn the gun on himself offstage by the end. We see it much more modern ways in movies. The Winchester Pub in Shaun of the Dead where characters discuss if the Winchester gun mounted on the wall is even real before it inevitably gets used in the movie’s climax against zombies, or the knife sculpture in Knives Out that is shown as the centerpiece throughout the movie. Its purpose combines Harlan telling Ransom that he couldn’t tell the difference between a real knife or a prop one with Ransom attempting to murder Martha with one of the knives from the sculpture, only for it to be a prop knife. It can be used to revive hope from despair or vice versa.
Chekhov’s Gun can even be misleading! In Knives Out, the blood stain on Marta’s Superga’s were the first thing detective Benoit Blanc noticed, immediately telling him she had some involvement in Harlan’s murder. However, this is merely used to mislead the viewer and is used as an adjunct by the end. It does subvert the principle to create uneasiness, but it still follows it at the core.
Tennessee managed to get its act together offensively, and following a blowout loss at Kentucky that capped off their less than stellar start in conference play, they answered that with an incredible stretch the rest of the way. The Vols shot just shy of 40 percent from three from the Vanderbilt game following the Kentucky loss through their SEC Tournament championship victory over Texas A&M.
Tennessee suffered just two losses in that span, both away from home: at Texas and Arkansas.
Santiago Vescovi was stellar for the Vols in SEC play heading into the tournament. He shot an SEC-leading 44.5 percent from three en route to a First Team All-SEC nod. Vescovi became just the second Vol ever to make 100 threes in a season, joining the legendary Chris Lofton who did it three times.
Along with Vescovi’s consistent lefty trigger was Josiah-Jordan James. James became a major factor for the Vols down the stretch after struggling with injuries and finding his shot early in the year. Triple J shot a blistering 51.9 percent from deep in the month of march heading into the NCAA Tournament, and he continued that into the first round against Longwood, hitting a trio of triples.
Nobody on this team was more important to the success of the Volunteers than point guard Kennedy Chandler. The freshman dealt with his struggles early, but he got exponentially better as the season went on, becoming the most consistent offensive player for Tennessee. He shot it well from outside, especially prior to the tournament, shooting over 56 percent from deep in March leading to the tourney, and his suffocating on-ball defense sparked the energy Tennessee’s defense played with.
For the first half of the season, the Vols shot just 33 percent from three and though they shot a lot of them, right around 26 per game, they just couldn’t count on it. Their struggles led to elongated scoring droughts that cost them in close games. Yet from February on, nobody in the SEC shot it better from deep than Tennessee. Aside from their stifling defense, their three point shooting carried them out of their patented lulls and to victories, though it was substantially less reliable than their defense. As a team, they shot 41.2 percent beyond the arc from the beginning of February to the end of the SEC Tournament.
In their first round matchup with Longwood, Tennessee torched the nets. They shot 60 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from deep, dominating the Lancers 88-56. Vescovi, James, and Chandler combined for 12-of-18 from deep. It was their best shooting game all season, and nobody was playing as well as Tennessee in the country.
There’s another great anecdote in Murphy’s General Laws: “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”
Enter Michigan, re-enter the ‘gun’. Tennessee was ice cold from long range in this game, and even though they went to half with a five point lead, getting unexpected offensive boosts from big men Uros Plavsic and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, they simply couldn’t extend it and keep Michigan at arm’s length. The Vols’ lack of a post presence hurt them severely as well, but it was their old friend, the drought, that reared its ugly head for one last hurrah.
Shooting 2-of-18 from three on the game, the Vols missed three great looks from three in the final minute, putting the final nail in their coffin. We were told early on how this team would break our hearts, and dammit if they didn’t fulfill that.
Being a Tennessee fan is a lot of fun. The rivalries are fantastic, and the environments are rabid, loud, and passionate. It’s also incredibly painful. We always want to see the bright side, the light at the end of the tunnel. We want to have hope. The light at the end of the tunnel always winds up being the light of a train, but we’ll be standing right there taking it on.
Tennessee basketball will forever epitomize this. It will forever be our enigma of pain and suffering to root for.
“It’s a twisted web. And we’re not finished untangling it, not yet.” - Benoit Blanc.