By Mark Nagi
The next three weeks are among the best all year in the world of sports.
And no, I’m not talking about negotiations between Major League Baseball owners and players. But yes, that’s a real hoot too.
It’s NCAA tournament time!
Even better, both the Vols and the Lady Vols are playing in their respective tournaments and have a puncher’s chance of getting at least as far as the Sweet 16. They have each been in the national rankings all year long, and if favorable draws go their way, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see UT have double the attention during the second weekend of the tournament.
Kellie Harper (formerly Kellie Jolly, a three-time national championship point guard for the Lady Vols in the late 1990s) has done a very good job building this program back to
be a conference and Final Four contender.
The issue is injuries. The Lady Vols are not playing at full steam. The biggest blow came a few weeks ago when guard Jordan Horston, the team’s leading scorer, suffered a fractured dislocation of her left elbow in the Alabama game. Her status from the NCAA tournament is still up in the air.
During the Pat Summitt era, trips to the Final Four were almost a given. Then one day you wake up and it’s been 14 years since they played on the last weekend of the season. This is a talented squad that has won 23 games. Maybe 2022 is the year that drought ends.
As far as the Tennessee men are concerned, they are still waiting for their first trip to the Final Four in program history. It’s hard to believe that a program with such a proud position has never been there before, but they haven’t. In fact, they only have one Elite 8 appearance. That came back in 2010.
The Vols’ postseason futility matches that of their coach. Rick Barnes is a future Hall of Famer. He’s won 750 games in 35 years as a head coach. But in the NCAA tournament, Barnes has had mediocre results.
Barnes has been the head coach at George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas, and Tennessee. He’s been to the NCAA tournament 25 times and been to the Final Four once. His overall record in the NCAA tournament is 24-25.
Those numbers aren’t meant to insinuate that Barnes is overmatched when it comes to basketball in March. But it feels like his teams should have performed better than the final results.
It’s all about matchups at this time of year, and Tennessee will be a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams. The Vols have tremendous guard play with all-SEC first teamer Santiago Vescovi and all-SEC second teamer Kennedy Chandler. The SEC’s all-freshman team features Chandler and Zakai Zeigler. The SEC’s all-defensive team sees Zeigler’s name again.
Josiah Jordan-James wasn’t recognized on those lists, but he might be Tennessee’s best overall player, averaging 9.5 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. Uros Plavsic, Jonas Aidoo and John Fulkerson are tough to deal with close to the backboard.
The roster had to get an upgrade since the Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield led teams left campus. Barnes and his coaching staff did a terrific job getting this team together. Now is the time for that hard work to pay off, and for all of them to exorcise their postseason demons.
No matter what happens, this is a time to grab some quality hours on the couch with snacks and a beverage of choice. Make sure you have your excuses ready to play hooky from work.
It’s March Madness.