Let's call it what it is: Tennessee choked, and so did the SEC
When the NCAA Tournament field was released, I mapped out realistic fan expectations and realistic nightmare scenarios for every SEC team in the field.
When I got to Tennessee, I was a bit all over the place. On one hand, we were talking about a Vols squad who rolled through the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979 and looked like it found a clear identity with Kennedy Chandler as the game-changing point guard. There could’ve been some 2006 Florida vibes with the Vols in March. On the other hand, it was still a program who hadn’t advanced passed the Sweet 16 since 2010, and it was led by Rick Barnes, who hadn’t been to the Elite 8 since 2008.
So I hedged. I wrote that the realistic fan expectation was reaching the Elite 8. The Vols had never been to the Final Four, so I felt it was unfair to expect the unprecedented, especially as a 3-seed.
What about Tennessee’s realistic nightmare scenario, you ask? Here’s what I wrote before the NCAA Tournament:
… that nightmare scenario exists. It starts with an “M” and ends with “ichigan.” Should Juwan Howard’s postgame punch/slap be a rallying cry? Probably not. Had the Wolverines made a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, there’d be much more buzz about the Wolverines as a potential giant-killer. Instead, they blew a 17-point lead in the opening round and had to sweat out Selection Sunday. But Hunter Dickinson is a unique matchup, especially on a quick turnaround. There are plenty of key contributors from last year’s Elite 8 squad, and Tennessee would be treated like Michigan’s Super Bowl.
Welp. That nightmare played out on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
So long, Vols. So long, absurd late-season momentum.
Hello, familiar territory.
A Tennessee team who had rough offensive droughts all year picked a suboptimal time to do that. Against a Michigan team with nothing to lose, the aforementioned Dickinson dominated and just like that, a double-digit seed sent the Vols home early in the Round of 32.
That was par for the course for the SEC over the weekend. Tennessee became the 4th SEC team to lose to a double-digit seed in the opening weekend of March Madness.
So was the SEC overrated? Did the league get a bit ahead of its skiis?
Tennessee online sports betting 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.
Let’s just call it what it is. Tennessee choked, and so did the majority of the SEC.
Of course, we’re talking about some totally different scenarios with those 4 SEC teams who watched double-digit seeds end their seasons.
Kentucky was a legitimate national title contender who happened to fall in arguably one of the 2-3 biggest first-round upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Alabama was a preseason top-15 team who was maddeningly inconsistent all year, so losing to a Notre Dame team who only made the field of 64 after a play-in game win wasn’t stunning, especially after Jahvon Quinerly suffered a significant knee injury. And LSU, well, most teams who have to turn to an interim coach for the NCAA Tournament aren’t expected to turn into Cinderella.
But man, just 6 days removed from being understandably upset at the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s clear move to disregard the week in Tampa, the SEC didn’t exactly deliver an “I told you so.” Instead, it delivered a “yeah, we forgot this wasn’t football.”
Does that mean the SEC was a fraud? Not necessarily. There’s a difference between being overhyped and not showing up for the occasion as a superior team. The SEC did the latter. If nonconference play is the metric to determine how good a league is, remember the SEC had wins against:
- 1-seed Gonzaga
- 1-seed Arizona
- 1-seed Kansas
- 1-seed Baylor
(And if you think Baylor’s loss to UNC made the Bears a fraud, the Heels lost to Tennessee and Kentucky.)
Did that matter this weekend, though? Nope. And did it matter that the league got 6 teams into the field for the 6th consecutive year for the first time since 1999-2004? Nope again.
The NCAA Tournament isn’t a place for regular season conference feats. Like, remember when college hoops fans were talking about the depth of the Mountain West and how impressive it was that it became a 4-bid league? None of those teams won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Does that mean the conference was a fraud? No. It means its teams didn’t show up when it mattered.
It wasn’t like Michigan exposed new areas of weakness with Tennessee. We knew all year that it was by no means a world-beater offense. But we accepted it because we just watched the Vols dominate the SEC Tournament without scoring more than 72 points in a single game. Maybe on some nights, going 2-for-17 from 3-point range would’ve been fine. On Saturday, it wasn’t. Instead, it allowed Michigan to hang around and never drift out of arm’s reach.
Tennessee blew a golden opportunity, and it was in a totally different fashion than Kentucky’s mammoth letdown. The Wildcats hadn’t lost to a non-NCAA Tournament team all year, and against a Saint Peter’s team without an NCAA Tournament win to speak of, it somehow had limited non-Oscar Tshiebwe offense and little perimeter defense to fall back on.
Overconfidence? Maybe. Maybe not. March can punish any approach.
We often try to search for a way to explain things that surprise us when reality is, sometimes failing to show up for 1 night can undo a whole lot of good.
And to be fair, that doesn’t mean the regular season is pointless. I’m sure Tennessee fans won’t forget that SEC Tournament title anytime soon, and Kentucky fans probably took a little extra satisfaction with going into Phog Allen and beating the breaks off of Kansas. Shoot, LSU fans got to watch home wins against Kentucky and Tennessee in a 5-day stretch while Alabama beat as many true heavy hitters as any program in the country.
But those were distant memories this weekend. Instead, the SEC opened the door for the outside world dunk on the conference for having 4 teams fall to double-digit seeds.
Even Danny Kanell had the tweet ready to roll minutes after Tennessee’s loss:
Maybe instead of whining and crying about seeding and teams not getting in they should have shown up ready to play. What a brutal tournament for the SEC. Overhyped again.
— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) March 19, 2022
With 10:25 to play in the Tennessee-Michigan game, Chandler blew past the Michigan defense and dropped in a pretty reverse layup to give the Vols a 57-54 lead. It forced a Michigan timeout. All signs pointed to Tennessee riding that momentum and holding off the Wolverines, who hadn’t won consecutive games since Feb. 10. The layup by Memphis native prompted a tweet of praise from Ja Morant, and the Tennessee faithful rose to its feet.
Chandler, playing in his first NCAA Tournament, was shown by the CBS cameras saying the words “I’m here.”
Here one second, gone the next. That’s the NCAA Tournament in a nutshell.
The SEC was dealt a painful reminder of that.