It's a shame this Tennessee team went out on that note for so many reasons
I’ll be honest. I’m bummed right now.
It’s 10:15 p.m. ET on Thursday night and I’m feeling the way I’m sure many Tennessee fans are. Bummed. Bummed they are that they don’t get to watch this team play anymore.
I have no allegiances to Tennessee whatsoever. I am, however, a human being who likes watching good basketball. Tennessee played good basketball. Extremely good basketball. Like, the type of basketball that inspired a fanbase with its unselfishness. As a neutral observer, that provided me countless hours of entertainment.
And now it’s gone, and I’m bummed.
It wasn’t until the clock finally hit zero in Thursday night’s Sweet 16 loss to Purdue that reality sank in that this was it for Rick Barnes’ squad. This special group, with throwback players like Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, played its last game together.
Sure, that’s usually how it ends in March. Rare is it that teams get to go out on a high note, even the great ones. But for this Tennessee team to lose in that fashion just didn’t sit well.
And I’m not just saying that because Carsen Edwards got a gift of a foul call in those final seconds to ultimately force overtime. Lord knows if Tennessee could’ve shot free throws like even a decent team, it wouldn’t have come down to that. Or, just shoot them like Tennessee, AKA the team that ranked No. 16 in America in free-throw percentage before Thursday.
The team that was so fundamentally sound all year didn’t do the little things. As Chris Webber said on the broadcast, whenever Tennessee executed a post touch that yielded a high-percentage look, it did something different on the next possession.
Schofield, who caught fire in the second half, took too long to recognize the mismatch he had driving at Purdue’s bigs. The words he said after getting fouled in the final minutes probably should’ve come a bit sooner.
“He can’t guard me.”
(It looked like there might’ve been an expletive slipped in there but this is a family-friendly website.)
Don’t get me wrong. The Vols did a lot of the things they did all year. When Purdue jumped out to an 18-point lead, it was fitting to watch Tennessee storm back with Williams sidelined. That type of stuff happened all year. It happened all tournament, like when Schofield and Lamonte Turner both convinced Rick Barnes to leave Kyle Alexander in for overtime against Iowa instead of putting Schofield back in with 4 fouls.
That’s why it was strange that with the season on the line, nobody stepped up for Tennessee in overtime. Williams, Alexander and Jordan Bowden fouled out while Turner exited with what appeared to be cramping.
Finally, there wasn’t an answer. The gritty, lunch-pale mentality that fueled a roster without a top-100 recruit finally wasn’t enough.
The shame is that when we look back on this Tennessee team, the shortcomings won’t match its place in program history. The Vols could never get that big, hoist-in-the-air achievement. Yeah, winning a share of a regular season conference title like they did in 2018 was meaningful.
But I pictured this Tennessee team’s signature achievement looking different. I thought we’d see Rick Barnes pumping his fist after cutting down the nets to celebrate a regional title and the program’s first Final Four berth. This group, for as many games as it won, never got to have that moment. Maybe it was beating Kentucky in thrilling fashion in the SEC semifinals.
I don’t know. I thought it would be a more signature moment than that. I’m sure plenty of Tennessee fans did, too.
That’s March, though. It’s a cruel, often heartbreaking beast that takes years off our lives. The Vols know that all too well. Unfortunately for Barnes, so does he, as many people were quick to point out during and after Thursday’s game.
I expect Tennessee to get even more familiar with that feeling. I actually mean that in a good way. Even without knowing the NBA decisions of Williams and Bone, the foundation that Barnes built is promising. He established a culture of selflessness mixed with dedication to the weight room. If Tennessee sustains success, this will forever be known as the group that got the ball rolling.
There will always be a “what if” with this Tennessee team, though. Like, what if Ryan Cline missed A 3-pointer when the game was on the line. Or, what if Edwards didn’t get the favorable call in the final seconds (it really was a brutal bounce in that spot).
Still, though. Tennessee had its chances. It had everything there for the taking. It had a chance to make history.
I’ll miss watching this Tennessee team not just for the GIFs of Williams photobombing Schofield at SEC Media Days or for the pregame slow-motion dunk videos. I’ll miss it because in a sport loaded with one-and-dones and blue bloods, Tennessee was a blast from the past. They played like a team that actually liked each other instead of looking like a handful of guys doing their own thing to show off their NBA skill set.
They say all good things must come to an end.
Tennessee was a good thing, and it bums me out that it ended like it did on Thursday night.