By Mark Nagi
Tennessee’s men’s basketball team has become a regular participant in the NCAA tournament. That certainly hasn’t always been the case (I’m looking at you, Buzz Peterson era).
The Vols began tournament play on Thursday, March 17th against Longwood in Indianapolis. It was a game that was never really in doubt. Four Tennessee players reached double figures in a dominant 88-56 victory.
The victory pushed UT into the second round, where they would lose to Michigan, 76-68, Saturday.
Only four days prior, Tennessee won the SEC tournament for the first time in 43 years, but there wasn’t even a hint of a letdown. Santiago Vescovi led all scorers with 18 points.
“I think it’s really fun to play this way where you know everybody on the team is just focused on winning,” said Vescovi. “I think it’s really fun whenever we start moving and everybody starts moving off the ball and on offense, too. That’s when we are playing our best basketball. Instead of just everybody standing still and watching the ball, play one-on-one, I think we did a great job of that… I trust all my teammates making decisions with the ball, and if the shot is for them, they are going to take it.”
With Indianapolis a very manageable drive of fewer than six hours from Knoxville, it wasn’t a surprise to see a lot of orange in the stands at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. “You know, we love our fans,” said Tennessee guard Kennedy Chandler. “They really support us, and I feel like we have the best fans in the country. They support us every single game. Either it’s here or for them to watch it at home. Everybody that traveled here to watch us play we thank them for the support.”
“On behalf of me and my teammates, we are all very appreciative of all Vol Nation,” said Tennessee forward John Fulkerson. “We know Vol Nation is the best fans in the country and to me, being here for so long that, was honestly no surprise to me, seeing how many fans we have here. On behalf of me and my teammates, we really appreciate that, all the love and support they give us.”
Considering the youth of this Tennessee team, some wondered if the Vols would be wowed by the bright lights. That certainly wasn’t the case against Big South champion Longwood.
“There’s just so many thoughts that go through your mind,” said Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes. “But with that said, you know, we are very transparent with our team about scenarios that happen, and we actually talked about the last time we were in this same situation right here with Wright State (who Tennessee beat 73-47 in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament). We came out and showed — that team was a good defensive team but came out totally doing not what we had done to get to us that point. And then we finally, around the 12-minute mark around that game, we started doing the things that we needed to do and got a nice win. So, we just said, ‘Hey, let’s be ready to go from the beginning. Let’s be who we are. Let’s do what we have done to get us here. Let’s trust each other, trust what we do.’”