NCAA Tournament: What a difference a year makes. Opening win shows how dangerous these Vols can be
It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that Tennessee didn’t bolt out of the starting gate against Longwood in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After all, the Vols were riding a historically high wave of emotion. Ultimately, that slow start didn’t matter at all.
The Vols, which earned a surprisingly low No. 3 seed, hammered No. 14 Longwood 88-56 on Thursday afternoon, just four days after beating Texas A&M to win the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979. The opening game of the NCAA Tournament between Tennessee and Longwood was close for a few minutes early. Then, the Vols took control.
Tennessee’s skill, talent and athleticism overmatched the Lancers. The Vols also happen to be pretty well coached. It became obvious very quickly that a close contest wasn’t in the making as the Vols pulled away. Tennessee had the game in hand at halftime with a 54-29 lead. Yes, the Vols nearly scored as many points in the first half as Longwood did in the entire game.
The Vols showed off some maturity in the first half as they overcame their slow start. They played loose and free in the second half. That resulted in some easy baskets. Credit Tennessee’s defense for setting up some of those plays. The Vols simply don’t fail to allow defensive effort to play second fiddle. That’s yet another testament to their overall approach. Defense is about hustle and discipline. The Vols have plenty of both.
There was no guarantee that the Vols would rebound from blah to brilliant after the slow start. Heck, Big Ten champion Iowa lost to No. 12 seed Richmond. No. 1 seed Gonzaga was pushed throughout against Georgia State.
However, it’s hardly surprising that the Vols cruised. Tennessee has continually trended upward this season. It seems to be a national media consensus that Tennessee is playing at its highest level at the end of the season. The Vols are also receiving strong consideration as a Final Four contender. Being in the conversation to be one of the last teams still standing is news in and of itself. Tennessee has never made the Final Four and rarely gotten even close. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has made only one Final Four appearance despite an incredible track record of success.
These Vols seem to know who they are as well as any Tennessee team in recent memory. They know they need offensive production in the post. John Fulkerson was a dependable scoring option early in the game during the Vols’ brief struggles. The senior forward scored 15 points and made 7-of-8 shots on Thursday. The Vols know they need to avoid cold shooting stretches. That wasn’t a problem against Longwood. The Vols shot 60% overall, including 58% from the 3-point line. The Vols also know how important ball movement is. They found open shots via a whopping 29 assists Thursday. If the Vols can continue to play as they did on Thursday, they’ll make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament no matter who they play and no matter if they start a bit slow.
Things ratchet up quickly for the Vols, who will face Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines are playing with house money after beating Colorado State in the first round. They barely slipped into the NCAA Tournament with an 18-14 record, but they climbed as high as No. 4 in the AP poll.
In many ways, the Wolverines are the antithesis of the way Tennessee’s basketball team is playing. Michigan is 5-5 in its past 10 games. That included a surprising opening-game loss in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Vols have won 9 of their last 10 games and beaten 5 teams by double digits in that span. As has been well documented, Tennessee also has beaten 3 ranked teams in their recent run of success. So, no, these teams are not in the same place. Not even close.
There won’t likely be many Harlem Globetrotter-like highlights when the Vols play Michigan, which is a No. 11 seed. The Wolverines are physical. Tennessee relies on defense, although they can score when needed. A 70-point showing by either team could secure a spot in the Sweet 16. Certainly, Tennessee could slip up and lose to Michigan. Basketball in March can be a funny thing. However, this doesn’t seem like the type of Tennessee team that will fall way short of expectations, which losing to Michigan would mean. Tennessee might not make the Final Four but a 2nd-round loss doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
This Tennessee basketball team has the aforementioned maturity to overcome the intensity of the NCAA Tournament. That wasn’t the case last year. The Vols lost to Oregon State 70-56 in embarrassing fashion on the very same venue in which they choked out Longwood on Thursday. This is a different Tennessee team — obviously.
This Tennessee team is confident and motivated by anything they can find. The latest is certainly the seeding that the Vols received. There were so many arguments against the Vols being seeded No. 2 that it almost became nauseous. In the end, Tennessee received a No. 3 seed but a favorable draw. Moreover, the Vols are going to have to beat some quality teams to advance deep in the tournament. It’s just a matter of who and how soon. No matter who they play, the Vols are still trending in the right direction.