By Steve Williams

It’s hard to argue with a Sweet 16 showing, but Tennessee could have won the NCAA championship this season.

Point guard DeAndre Mathieu, a product of Knoxville Central High School who helped lead Minnesota to the NIT title last week, could have made the difference.

Cuonzo Martin passed on two opportunities to offer Mathieu (pronounced Matthew) a scholarship last spring, the first time at the completion of Mathieu’s award-winning 2012-13 season at Central Arizona College and again in early May when Trae Golden left the UT program.

Mathieu could have been running the Vols’ offense in tonight’s (April 7) NCAA championship game. And it’s my belief UT fans would have ended up with a first-ever national basketball title to celebrate until March Madness rolls back around on the calendar.

Coach Martin would never admit he made a mistake, because that would cast a negative light on the two point guards – Antonio Barton and Darius Thompson – who played for him this season. But if truth be known, Cuonzo probably wished more than once this past season he had Mathieu on his team.

Martin, a former Purdue player, has The Big Ten Network at his home. Days leading up to the Vols’ first-round NCAA tourney game against Iowa, he told us he had watched quite a bit of Big Ten basketball this season. Surely he saw Mathieu do his thing. He had to be impressed.

DeAndre, or Dre as he is known by his former Central teammates and friends back in Knoxville, scored 13 points – all in the second half – and dished out seven assists as Minnesota defeated SMU 65-63 in the NIT title game last Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Martin, again, was probably watching and silently second-guessing himself as ESPN televised the finals.

Playing at Tennessee had been a goal of Mathieu’s coming out of Central High. He was there for the taking, living just a few miles from Thompson-Boling Arena.

According to Mitch Mitchell, Mathieu’s high school coach his senior season, Martin recruited Mathieu when he coached at Missouri State but stopped recruiting him after he took the Tennessee job in 2011.

Just like most Division 1 coaches, Martin was wrong about Mathieu. Dre may be 5-foot-9, but he can sky, and more importantly, he’s fearless as he penetrates an opponent’s interior.

Mathieu had to prove himself on the collegiate level and eventually did. After one season as a walk-on at Morehead State, he transferred to Central Arizona College, where he was a junior college All-American and Player of the Year in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.

UCLA began a parade of Division 1 programs that sought Dre’s services. The Bruins changed coaches, opening the door for other major colleges to come calling.

UT assistant Tracy Webster had taken a look at Mathieu in the national juco tournament, but the Vols’ interest stopped there.

Mathieu was just as well off landing at Minnesota, where first-year coach Richard Pitino would be playing an up-tempo brand of ball like his dad was using at Louisville.

Dre started all 38 games for the 25-13 Gophers and averaged 30 minutes playing time. He averaged 12 points and over four assists per outing, shooting 51 percent from the field and 75 percent from the line.

Mathieu’s greatest contribution at Tennessee would have been penetrating inside and setting up its bigs for easy buckets. He could have been the piece the Vols needed to stay on the dance floor.