KNOXVILLE — The NCAA Tournament is one of America’s greatest sporting events. From underdogs you’ve never heard of making a deep run, to blue-blood programs building on their impressive resumes, for 3 weeks the tournament is on the minds of millions of sports fans nationwide.

What also makes the tournament must-see TV is the immediacy of the moment. This isn’t a best of 7 situation. One bad night and your season is over. Heck, a single turnover or bricked free throw can be the difference between advancing or getting sent home in time for your next calculus class.

There are 16 teams still fighting, including the 4 seed in the East Region, the Tennessee Volunteers. They are 2 victories from the Final Four, a place the Vols have never been.

Tennessee might be the top program in college basketball history without a trip to the Final Four. Xavier is another squad still playing these days that would like to shake that “best team never to …” moniker as well.

The Vols have had so many close calls over the past quarter century, too. In 2000, they blew a 9-point lead in the 2nd half against North Carolina, falling 74-69 in the Sweet 16. That was actually the first time Tennessee played in the Sweet 16 since the field was expanded to at least 64 teams in 1985.

In 2007, the Vols returned to the Sweet 16. They led No. 1 seed Ohio State by as many as 20 points before the Buckeyes roared back to regain the lead in the 2nd half. This was the OSU team led by 1-and-done freshman stars Greg Oden and Mike Conley.

In the final seconds, Tennessee trailed 85-84 when point guard Ramar Smith grabbed a missed free throw and sprinted down court. But his shot never reached the basket as Oden blocked it at the buzzer. That loss was made even more painful because had the Vols won, they would have played a Memphis team in the Elite 8 that they had beaten by 17 points a few months earlier. Instead, OSU blasted the Tigers by 16 to reach the Final Four.

The following season, the Vols won the SEC and achieved the program’s first No. 1 ranking in program history. But Bruce Pearl’s best team ran out of gas in the Sweet 16, losing to Louisville.

Those were all heartbreaking, but 2010 remains the benchmark for Tennessee’s “what might have been” fantasies. The Vols made it to the Elite 8 for the 1st and (thus far) only time after a thrilling 3-point win over Ohio State in the Sweet 16. With a spot in the Final Four at stake, thousands of Vols fans made the trip to St. Louis to see a classic game between Tennessee and Michigan State. Trailing by 1 in the final seconds, Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson made his 1st free throw attempt but missed the 2nd.

Michigan State’s Raymar Morgan beat the Vols downcourt and was fouled under the basket by JP Prince. Morgan made a free throw with 1.8 seconds left and the Vols lost 70-69.

“It’s going to stick with us,” senior Bobby Maze told reporters afterward. “Anytime we watch college games or during tournament time, we’ll always come back to that very moment where we were just too short.”

In 2014, which was Cuonzo Martin’s 3rd and final season, the Vols went on an unexpected run from the play-in game to the Sweet 16 before falling to Michigan 73-71. A controversial charge call on Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes with only 6 seconds remaining kept the Vols from an Elite 8 matchup with rival Kentucky.

In 2018, Rick Barnes’ 3rd Tennessee team was picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC but unexpectedly won the conference’s regular season title. In the NCAA Tournament, they had the bracket of their dreams. As a 3 seed they beat 14 seed Wright State, and then faced 11 seed Loyola Chicago. But Cinderella had other ideas, propelling Loyola Chicago on a miracle run to the Final Four as they beat Tennessee 63-62 on a jumper with less than 5 seconds remaining. Had the Vols won that game, all that would have stood between them and that elusive Final Four berth were 7 seed Nevada and 9 seed Kansas State. Roads to the Final Four don’t get more clear.

A year later, Tennessee was even better, spending 4 weeks ranked No. 1 in the country. They led Purdue by 2 points in the final seconds in the Sweet 16. The Boilermakers could have been whistled for a 5 second call, but weren’t. Then Boilermakers guard Carsen Edwards was bumped by Lamonte’ Turner while shooting a 3-pointer, prompting another questionable tournament whistle that went against UT. Edwards made 2 of 3 free throws, sending the game to OT, where Purdue escaped 99-94.

You just don’t know when opportunities like these will come along. Tennessee has yet to take full advantage of favorable draws in the NCAA Tournament.

This time, the Vols reached the Sweet 16 knowing that 1 seed Purdue, 8 seed Memphis and 6 seed Kentucky didn’t earn the trip to the Big Apple. Kentucky, in particular, had already beaten UT twice this season. On Thursday, Tennessee will face 9 seed Florida Atlantic, and if they get past the upstart Owls, UT would play the winner of 3 seed Kansas State and 7 seed Michigan State.

Barnes couldn’t have envisioned a much better scenario as the Vols try to make history by reaching their first Final Four.

The Dane Bradshaw/Chris Lofton/Wayne Chism teams of the late 2000s and the Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield squads of the late 2010s are some of the most beloved groups in the history of Tennessee basketball. They won conference championships and achieved lofty rankings … but they could never get over the proverbial hump and play in a Final Four.

The 2022-2023 Vols have an opportunity to cement their Tennessee legacy this week at Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball. With 2 more wins, the Vols would add a brand new banner to the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena …

Tennessee’s moment has arrived.

Will they meet it?