By Steve Williams
The near Sweet Sixteen seasons for the Tennessee men’s and women’s basketball teams quickly turned sour in the Round of 32.
With NCAA tournament play getting close to being really exciting for fans, our Vols and Lady Vols, both seeded No. 3, stumbled across the dance floor.
The men’s 63-62 loss to No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago was very disappointing. More than anything, the women’s 66-59 defeat at the hands of No. 6 seed Oregon State was unexpected and unprecedented.
It was the Lady Vols’ first loss ever on their home floor in a NCAA tournament game, snapping a 57-game winning streak at The Summitt.
Pat Summitt, bless her soul, would be so upset.
But it was just another monumental defeat for the women’s program, following several other losses to SEC teams the Lady Vols used to beat with regularity until a couple of seasons ago.
After a 15-game win streak to open the season, the UT women were improved, but many fans’ early season hopes faded as the team’s play became inconsistent and was exposed by the conference’s stronger teams.
The UT men, on the other hand, surprised the nation by capturing a share of the SEC regular season championship, after being picked to finish next to last in the conference by the SEC media.
It was one of the most enjoyable Tennessee seasons I’ve watched since the mid-1960s.
But after easily eliminating Wright State in the Big Dance, the Vols were upset in the second round. Just like that, their potential dream season was over.
Since then, my disappointment has grown as all the top seeds in the South Region have been ousted, leaving what could have been a very favorable path to a first-ever Final Four berth for UT.
The Vols (26-9) and Lady Vols (25-8) may have both lost in the Round of 32, but there is a stark difference in the aftermath for these two programs.
While Rick Barnes is a strong candidate for National Coach of the Year honors, Holly Warlick has been facing strong criticism on the women’s side.
Warlick’s program took a sharp drop in the 2015-16 season when the Lady Vols tied for seventh place in the conference standings with an 8-8 league mark, although they rallied in the post-season and reached the Elite Eight for the third time in Holly’s first four years.
The Lady Vols have made slight improvement in the SEC standings the past two seasons but haven’t gotten past the second round in the NCAA tourney.
Not getting out of Knoxville and beyond The Summitt this year isn’t making life any easier for Phillip Fulmer, UT’s new athletic director. He has a tough decision to make.
Warlick was a longtime assistant to Summitt, but this is her first head coaching job. Six seasons is more than enough of a sample to see where she can take this program, which for years under Summitt was one of the nation’s best, if not the best.
Warlick appears to be a good recruiter and we’ve heard she has a top-notch class coming in for the second straight year. I just hope it includes some corn-fed rebounders and dead-eye shooters.
The women’s game has gotten better over the years and there are more good teams than there used to be.
But all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds made it to the women’s Sweet Sixteen this season – UConn (34-0), Louisville (34-2), Mississippi State (34-1), Notre Dame (31-3), Baylor (33-1), Oregon (32-4), South Carolina (28-6) and Texas (28-6) were still boogieing going into the weekend.
They make up the current cream of the crop in women’s college basketball.
And it’s hard to see the Lady Vols not in it.