The shame that is a tournament sport

By Mark Nagi

Tennessee’s men’s basketball team has never been to the Final 4.

You’ll hear that a lot in the weeks to come, as we get closer to the NCAA tournament.

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has only been to the Final 4 once.

You’ll hear that a lot in the weeks to come, as we get closer to the NCAA tournament.

And both of those talking points are a shame.

College basketball is a terrific sport. Yes, it used to be better back in the day when the greatest players stuck around for at least a couple of years. Michael Jordan stuck around at North Carolina for three years. Patrick Ewing was at Georgetown for four seasons.

Heck, we were able to admire yet still hate Christian Laettner for all four of his seasons at Duke.

But even though we don’t see those guys on college courts nearly as long these days, there are few things better than the week in March which brings us Selection Sunday, followed by a week of Play-In games along with the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament as the field is whittled down from 68 to 16 teams.

Sometimes schools we know very little about get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Every now and again one of those teams even makes it to a Final Four.

Loyola-Chicago and Florida Atlantic come to mind from the last decade, mainly because they beat Tennessee on their way to the last weekend of the season. But do either of those schools have a prouder tradition of basketball than Tennessee? No, of course not.

But many fans, sadly, would trade UT’s history just for a Final Four trip.

The differences between college football and college basketball are striking.

In 2022, the Tennessee Volunteers football team didn’t get to the College Football Playoff, nor did they win the SEC title, or even play in that championship game. But that 52-49 win over Alabama will be remembered by generations of fans. Much like Tennessee’s wins over Alabama in 1982 and 1995, the 1985 Sugar Bowl win over Miami, the Vols “Miracle at South Bend” win over Notre Dame in 1990, and the “Dobbnail Boot” Hail Mary victory at Georgia in 2016 are held in such high esteem.

The Vols didn’t win a national title in any of those seasons.

But in college basketball, it is often “Final Four or Bust.”

The shame is that there have been so many great regular season victories for the Vols over the last couple of decades that simply get forgotten. Most of those Kodak moments came under Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes. But the failures in March overshadowed most of those memories.

This year’s Tennessee team has been a regular in the Top 10 rankings. They’ve beaten Alabama at Thompson-Boling Arena, which now brings out the ultimate troll job in the playing of “Dixieland Delight” whenever Tennessee beats Alabama in any sport. They scored 103 points in a victory at Kentucky (something that hadn’t been done at Rupp Arena by a visiting SEC team in over three decades).

The Vols have likable, experienced players who represent the University well… but for some all that matters is the Final Four.

Rick Barnes is closing in on 800 career victories. He’s proven his critics wrong. He wasn’t playing out the string to get one final big payday before retirement. Instead, in his nine seasons at Tennessee he righted the ship following the Donnie Tyndall disaster and turned Thompson-Boling Arena/Food City Center into one of the toughest buildings in the country for road teams to get a win.

Personally, I’d like to see the Vols make the Final Four. It would get a big weight off Barnes’s back and bring a brand-new banner to the rafters.

But if they don’t, the season should not be deemed a failure.