Hayes: Major bowl, Final Four and CWS? Tennessee has a chance to make some history
In the aftermath of it all, after yet another big moment in a big game, the trend can no longer be ignored.
Tennessee has a very real chance to reach a rare triple in college sports: playing in a major bowl, and reaching the Final Four and College World Series in the same season.
Welcome, everyone, to the unfolding Tennessee Trifecta.
The unquestioned best combination of the Big 3 in college sports showed off its basketball muscle this weekend, moving the Vols 1 step closer to the rare, 3-sport collection of winning.
NCAA Tournament blue-blood Duke was simply in the way Saturday. Literally.
“We were going to make them play a tough, hard-nosed game,” Tennessee forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “And see if they were ready for it.”
Neither were the majority of Tennessee’s football opponents this season, wilting under the pressure of coach Josh Heupel’s fast pace offense. Including a guy named Saban, who when we last heard from him, was complaining about the speed of the game and having to play Tennessee.
Really, he was.
So it’s almost fitting that the Tennessee basketball team did the same to NCAA Tournament king Duke. Or that the Tennessee baseball team did the same to just about everyone last year — and is in the early stages of doing it again this season.
The Vols’ dominating 2nd-round win over Duke in the NCAA Tournament was merely an extension of what began in the 2021-22 sports calendar, and has become undeniable in 2022-23. They’re closing in on the college sports trifecta.
The last to do it was Louisville in 2012-2013, when the Cardinals beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl, won the NCAA Tournament and played in the CWS.
After leaving the Orlando Region with 2 wins and setting up a now favorable East Region run, Tennessee has put itself in position for the rare triple by executing the same unwavering philosophy as the football and baseball teams.
By forcing their will on those in their way.
The football team has Heupel’s Blur Ball offense, utilizing an ultra-quick tempo — and executing at such a high level — to force opponents to choose the lesser of 2 evils. When you rush for 200 yards a game, and throw for 326 (and average 46 points per game), there is no right answer defensively.
The Vols won 11 football games for the first time in more than 2 decades, and completed the first leg of the college sports triple by beating Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
“We want to force people to react to us, make them uncomfortable,” Heupel said. “If you can do that, you’ve got a high probability of winning.”
That may as well be the mission statement for the Big 3 sports at Tennessee.
Duke has better players than Tennessee and could have 4 players selected in June’s NBA Draft. Tennessee had strength, will and intensity.
From Blur Ball on the football field to Bully Ball on the court, each is uniquely effective in its ability to force the uncomfortable. Duke was playing better than it had all season, having won 10 straight by an average of 13.5 points per game.
Then came Tennessee’s long, strong group, and it was nothing like Duke had seen all season. The Vols go 9 deep, bringing wave after wave of a relentless, punishing style that fits more like old school NBA than the chuck and heave of today.
Tennessee dictated tempo with blocks, steals and deflections on defense, and ball screens and rebounds on the offensive end. Duke had 15 turnovers and only 10 assists on 21 field goals.
The telltale sign of an overwhelmed team: The Blue Devils couldn’t get to the free throw line (only 7 free throws attempted) because Tennessee’s perimeter defense locked dribble drive penetration.
The Duke defense, meanwhile, had no answer for Nkamhoua, an enigmatic but uber-talented stretch 4 who had 27 points and scored every way imaginable. Dribble drive, turnaround jumper, set and shoot 3-pointer, and with his back to the basket.
Even the loss to star point guard Zakai Zeigler 3 weeks ago hasn’t derailed this train. Leading scorer Santiago Vescovi is running more point, and he has a 27/14 assist/turnover ratio since Zeigler tore his ACL in late February.
“When we get people playing our (type of) game, it just guarantees us that we’re going to be in our element,” Nkamhoua said. “We’re not just one hit. It’s going to be continuous hits.”
And that brings us to the final stage of the trifecta, the baseball team that’s currently ranked No. 2 in the nation by Baseball America. The Vols in 2021-22 led the nation in most every significant hitting and pitching metric — before shockingly losing to Notre Dame in an NCAA Super Regional.
They’re back this season as a College World Series favorite, and already are forcing their will on opponents: a lethal combination of home run ball (42 HRs in 19 games), pressing on the base paths (31 of 35 SBs) and power pitching (225 Ks in 166 innings).
While Heupel and Vols basketball coach Rick Barnes are measured (for the most part) in their personality, baseball coach Tony Vitello is the diametric opposite.
He’s brash and outspoken, a fuse that’s constantly lit and burning toward something big. In that sense, the Tennessee baseball team is a reflection of its coach — and not unlike the football and basketball teams.
Don’t let Barnes and Heupel’s measured intensity fool you. They’re high-level competitors who believe in the truism of sport: toughest player wins. In that sense, their teams play the role perfectly.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker was a carbon copy of Heupel, the player and coach. Heupel won a national title in 2000 as Oklahoma’s silent assassin quarterback, outplaying brash Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke of Florida State in the BCS national championship game.
Heupel then found 3 perfect fits for his offenses at UCF and Tennessee, and not surprisingly, all 3 — McKenzie Milton, Dillon Gabriel, Hooker — set records and won big.
Barnes has been grinding since 1998 at 2 prominent programs (Texas and Tennessee) with demanding fan bases. He got Texas to the Final Four in 2003, but his Tennessee teams haven’t reached their potential since he arrived.
In 4 previous appearances, Tennessee lost to double-digit seeds 3 times. It nearly happened again Thursday in the first round, before the Vols held off No. 13 Louisiana and later steamrolled Duke.
There’s still heavy lifting ahead for the Vols, who could need to beat Kansas State or Mr. March Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans — to reach the Final Four.
That’s where this rare trifecta could reach the 2nd level, and leave the rest to the Tennessee baseball team to wrap up the Year of Tennessee Sports.
After losing in the Super Regional to Notre Dame last season — at home, as the No.1 seed of the tournament — there’s plenty incentive to make it right.
By forcing their will on those in their way.
Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.