By Mark Nagi
College basketball is a tournament sport. Which, of course, can lead to some of the most exciting moments on the athletic calendar.
But it also gives us immediate endings, sooner than would come if there wasn’t a lose and go home finish for all but one of the 68 teams that advance to the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee’s second round defeat at the hands of Michigan left a sour taste in the mouths of Vols fans because it felt like this team had a legitimate shot at making it to the Final Four.
But that shouldn’t take away from a solid run.
“It’s really hard when the season comes to an end, and you know when you’ve been doing it as long as I have, only one team is going to be really, truly ecstatic,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes told reporters in his first comments since departing the NCAA tournament. “I’ve said it before. You lose in the championship game, semifinal game, you lose. It’s such a sudden halt that it’s tough, especially when you have high expectations and want it all… But then as time goes on, you look back and think about this team and the fact that we had half the team as freshmen and the way they came together with the older guys. You look back on it and the fact that we never lost back-to-back games, winning the SEC championship… that’s something that this group of guys will always have, I mean, they will be teammates forever.”
UT ended their season with a 27-8 record, went 16-0 at home, and won the SEC tournament for the first time since 1979. Any season in which you can raise a banner should not be considered a failure.
“Looking at it from the inside out, it’s the way that they respected each other, and had the utmost respect in terms of holding each other accountable,” said Barnes. “It started coming together at the end of January when they started to hold each other accountable at a very high level. Not just in games, but in practice every day. It was a special group of guys and even the guys that didn’t play taught our teammates life lessons.”
One teammate that will not be returning is point guard Kennedy Chandler. He has chosen to make himself eligible for the NBA Draft after one year in Knoxville.
“Kennedy was responsible for 30 percent of our offense,” said Barnes. “Most of the guys coming back have played a lot of minutes. We’ll continue to recruit until we shut that part down. The best compliment I could give Kennedy was how he always kept wanting to get better. It took him a little bit to adjust to the game which you would expect at the college level, not just practice, but the grind that goes into it.”
The good news for Barnes is that Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler will be back. The addition of Knoxville Catholic’s B.J. Edwards should help maintain the high quality of play that UT gets from their backcourt. Tennessee likely will make off season moves in the transfer portal to further bolster that roster.
“We would like to get the best players that we think can help us,” said Barnes. “We want versatility. We want guys that can play different positions. We want guys with all the intangibles that you talk about and want to get better defensively. We’re looking at several guys right now. We’re excited about them, but we’ll wait and see how that all shakes out.”