Are the Vols heading to another disappointing March?

By Mark Nagi

Under Rick Barnes, Tennessee has turned into one of men’s college basketball’s top programs.

They’ve sat at the top of the national rankings for a few weeks. Last year they won the SEC tournament for the first time since 1979. Multiple recent Vols alums are playing professional basketball around the world, with Grant Williams the most successful as a regular contributor to the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Sold out crowds are a common occurrence at Thompson-Boling Arena.

But they have yet to do any real damage in the NCAA tournament.

Back in 2019 the Vols advanced to the Sweet 16, losing in overtime to Purdue. And that’s as far as they’ve gotten in the Field of 68 under Barnes, now in his eighth season in Knoxville.

This year the Vols have been a constant in the national rankings, with much of their time spent in the top 10.  You’d think that they have a good chance of making a run next month.

But Tennessee is maddeningly inconsistent.  Look at what the Vols have done since the end of January.

They beat eighth-ranked Texas 82-71, then fell at mediocre Florida 67-54. An ugly 46-43 win over Auburn was followed by inexplicable buzzer beating losses to Vanderbilt and Missouri.

With the Vols seemingly reeling, they came up with one of their biggest wins in program history, a 68-59 victory over top-ranked Alabama. Dixieland Delight played over the Thompson-Boling Arena loudspeakers.  It felt like UT was back on track.

Then came a 66-54 loss at Kentucky, UT’s second straight defeat to their I-75 rivals. The Vols couldn’t get to the free throw line, they couldn’t hit open shots, they couldn’t collect key rebounds and they couldn’t keep possession of the basketball.  Beat UK in those two games and the Wildcats probably miss the NCAA tournament. Instead, they are likely safe.

Earlier this season the Vols beat then third-ranked Kansas as well, the defending national champions. This same Vols group that beats Top 10 teams also puts up clunkers against unranked opponents only a few days later.

That type of inconsistency does not bode well for a survive and advance situation.

So why is this such a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde team?

“I wish I knew,” Barnes said after the most recent Kentucky loss. “I wish I knew. If I did, we would fix it. I don’t understand it. As much time as we spend with our guys talking about doing your job playing your role night in and night out… not letting emotion get the best of us sometimes…  When you are coming back, and emotion is kicking in you still have to make smart plays.”

Barnes has been a head coach for 36 seasons, spending time at George Mason, Providence, Clemson, and Texas before coming to Tennessee in 2015. He’s won over 770 games in his Hall of Fame career, but only been to the Final Four once, a 2003 trip with Texas.

It’s well past time for Barnes to get back to the final weekend of the season. Tennessee’s men’s basketball has never been there.

Will both droughts end in a few weeks?  Or should we expect more disappointment for the Vols?