By Mark Nagi
The Tennessee men’s basketball team is good. Really good.
They entered the final game of the regular season only one win out of first place in the Southeastern Conference. They have beaten sixth ranked Arizona, fourth ranked Kentucky and third ranked Auburn. The Vols have been nationally ranked all season. In all, Tennessee has 7 “Quad 1” wins, which is one of those metrics that the NCAA selection committee will look at when deciding what seed the Vols get in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
They have future pro basketball talent in guards Kennedy Chandler and Josiah Jordan-James. They have a sharp shooting guard in Santiago Vescovi, a fan favorite in point guard Zakai Zeigler, and an East Tennessee native playing his 67th year of college basketball, John Fulkerson. (Kidding, this is only his 6th season in Knoxville).
Despite losing Olivier Nkamhoua to a season ending injury, Uros Plavzic and Jonas Aidoo have picked up the slack down low.
This is a team that plays terrific defense as well. So, we must ask… is this finally the year that the Vols get to a Final Four?
Despite Tennessee’s proud tradition in men’s basketball, they’ve never made it to the final weekend of the season. The closest they came was in 2010 when Bruce Pearl led UT to the Elite Eight.
TV cameras were rolling a couple of weeks ago in the Tennessee locker room when head coach Rick Barnes told his players that the Vols are a national championship contender.
Strong words from a future Hall of Fame coach.
“We’ve been talking about that since we got together this summer,” said Jordan-James. “We knew our goals and our aspirations, and they have been that since the summer, and we are trying to put that together. All 16 guys in the locker room, coaches included, we fully believe that, and we just have to prove that every day.”
One of the maddening realities of this team is its inexplicable ability to go ice cold from the field for long stretches of a game. Case in point, the Georgia contest back on March 1st. Tennessee has been considerably better than the Bulldogs this season. The Vols entered that game with a 21-7 record while UGA was a woeful 6-23.
The Vols hadn’t won in Stegman Coliseum in 11 years, but there was no reason for this meeting to be close. Instead, Tennessee couldn’t create any space between themselves and the Bulldogs. The game was tied at 35 at intermission. In the second half, the Vols went over 5 minutes without scoring before a Fulkerson bucket with 4:10 to go righted the ship.
The Vols got the win 75-68, but that did little to address the main issue. Cold spells like that one will get you beat against better teams. At this time of year, all the teams you play are going to be of high quality. A chilly snap of that nature will send Tennessee home from the NCAA tournament early.
Basketball is a tournament sport. Sixty-seven of the 68 teams will finish their season with a loss. Sometimes it’s an injury, a blown whistle or a draw that doesn’t benefit your style which keeps a team from achieving its dream.
Is this finally Tennessee’s time?
We’ll find out together over the next few weeks.