By Alex Norman
What a year it has been for Tennessee’s men’s basketball team.
SEC regular season co-champions.
As of press time, they had advanced to the semifinals of the SEC tournament.
And you know what? They aren’t done yet. They made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014, and will open play later this week.
At the beginning of the 2017-2018 season, if you said that the Vols would be playing in the NCAA tournament, you would have been laughed out of the place. But the Vols proved that they weren’t worthy of the disrespect they were getting.
Granted, the Vols had gone 31-36 in Rick Barnes’ first two years as UT’s head coach, and maybe there wasn’t much reason to think they’d be any better than the 13th place finish they were predicted to have by SEC Media back in the preseason.
But early in the season, you got a few signs that this would be a different team. They upset 16th ranked Purdue and gave 3rd ranked Villanova a battle in games played in the Bahamas (the Vols also beat N.C. State in that Thanksgiving week tournament).
After losing their first two SEC games, they beat the potential one and dones from Kentucky at the start of an impressive stretch. The Vols won nine of their next ten games. They became a regular in the national rankings.
They ended up going 5-0 against their three biggest conference rivals. They swept both Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and edged Florida in their lone meeting.
Finally, on Saturday, March 3rd, a wild, sold out crowd of more than 22,000 fans packed Thompson-Boling arena to see the Vols rally for a 66-61 win over Georgia, to capture part of the SEC’s regular season championship.
Old friend Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers won the other half of that trophy.
The Vols were 23-7 with a 13-5 mark in a conference that could have as many as eight teams made the NCAA tournament (full field of 68 was revealed after press time). This is a team that plays stifling defense and is extremely unselfish. Their best player, Grant Williams, fouled out of that Georgia game with 3:33 remaining, but the Vols still found a way to rally for the victory.
The SEC’s postseason awards had a very Tennessee feel to them. Barnes was names Coach of the Year. Williams, their sophomore forward, was tabbed as Player of the Year. Junior forward Admiral Schofield was named to the All-SEC second team (and it’s tough to find anyone in the SEC playing better at the moment). Redshirt sophomore guard Lamonte Turner was named Co-Sixth Man of the Year.
But records and awards alone don’t tell the true story of this team. You can be an unlikeable winner. But this roster is filled with good kids that play hard for each other. Last year Schofield was named to the SEC’s Community Service Team and this year it was Williams’ turn.
The best news for the Vols? There is only one senior, James Daniel III, that receives decent minutes. Everyone else should be back for what could be a very special 2018-2019 season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Tennessee is a similar position next year.
No matter what happens in the NCAA tournament, this team should give Vols fans reason to feel good about the future of Tennessee athletics. It’s no secret that this has been a rough ten years. This basketball team just might be the start of an athletics turnaround on the UT campus.