As Uros Plavsic made his way to the tunnel of the Amway Center tunnel, he blew kisses to the crowd.

It was a triumphant moment for a Tennessee program that had heard all the criticism about its March struggles. For just the second time under Rick Barnes, the Vols had earned a trip to the Sweet 16, and they did so by virtue of bullying red-hot Duke into submission. They showed a Duke team full of freshman starters what physicality looked like while avoiding those all-too-familiar March scoring droughts that plagued them in years past.

The Vols had earned the right to celebrate. Plavsic chose to do so in the way he saw fit, which was by blowing kisses.

To the Duke fans.

To be fair, they were calling Plavsic every NSFW name in the book, which might’ve been related to the errant elbow he threw early in the game that earned him an offensive foul (Barnes said afterward that he “didn’t like any part of that”).

And also to be fair, that was just Part 1 of the postgame celebration. When Plavsic got into the tunnel, he and leading scorer Oliver Nkamhoua dapped each other up and had a long embrace in the aftermath of knocking off Duke.

Let’s call it what it is, though. Tennessee is the bad boy of the remaining field.

That’s not just because Plavsic trolled Duke fans. That’s not his first time — and probably not his last — postgame celebration dig. After Tennessee took down No. 1 Alabama, Plavsic busted out the “Crane Kick” that’s become synonymous with the Tide paying homage to the move from the Netflix show “Cobra Kai.”

One can tell that Tennessee has embraced a bit of a WWE style. Barnes’ squad is not, however, on the “villain” level that the 2022 Tennessee baseball team was at. Usually, Tennessee’s “bad boy” image on the hardwood refers to the way it plays the game with the nation’s top defensive efficiency ranking, not so much how it celebrates.

“Our physicality and toughness is something that brings people down to the mud,” Plavsic said. “Once you get in there, it’s not easy to get out of.”

He’s right. It does feel like a game that’s played in the mud — Nkamhoua also referenced bringing Duke “in the mud” — and not so much on the perimeter, where the Vols also lead the nation by allowing opponents to shoot just 26.4% from 3-point range. They’re going to slow things down (they rank No. 299 in tempo), move the ball in the half-court game to get high-percentage looks on offense (they rank No. 8 in assists) and make you maximize the few possessions you get on the other end (they rank No. 3 in made field goals allowed per game).

At its best, Tennessee’s style has been highly effective. At its worst, well, it’s raised some eyebrows.

“We want to play within the rules in terms of — as physical as we want to be — we don’t want to foul,” Barnes said after the Duke game.

Barnes’ team usually does that. Surprisingly, they sit in the middle of the pack nationally with 16.5 fouls per game. The Vols actually draw more fouls (17.5) than they get called for. It’s a fine line between “physical” and “dirty.” Some say Tennessee toes the line, while others say Tennessee crossed it.

Mike Krzyzewski tipped his hat to Tennessee following the Duke game and said the Vols “played outstanding defense.” Jay Bilas, on the other hand, thought the Vols benefited from the way the game was called.

“The game is way more physical now. It’s ridiculous,” Bilas told Colin Cowherd. “The Tennessee-Duke game you’re referencing was not a basketball game. It was a hockey game, and it was officiated like a hockey game. There were fouls that were flagrant fouls that were not called flagrant. I can’t understand why. I’ve talked to several officials about it and all of them seem to agree that that should not have happened that way.”

Whatever sport it was, Tennessee played it better than Duke. Whatever sport the Vols will be playing against FAU, the upset-minded Owls will be ready. FAU coach Dusty May made that perfectly clear on Sunday night.

Jabs aside — figurative and literal — one could liken Tennessee to a modern-day version of the 1980s Detroit Pistons or the 1990s New York Knicks (Barnes and Pat Riley look like they could be cousins). Those teams brought physical play to a place that forced the NBA to literally change the rules for hand-checking. Tennessee might not be changing the way the sport is officiated, but there’s no denying that they embody a “better think twice” approach in the lane with Plavsic and Jonas Aidoo. There’s also the deflection rates from Santiago Vescovi and Jahmai Mashack, who frustrated many an opposing guard.

So, too, did Zakai Zeigler, but his season-ending injury in late-February put Tennessee’s back against the wall heading into the home stretch. Even with that elite defense, there was reason to doubt the Zeigler-less March Vols.

After climbing to No. 2 in the country in the first week of February, the Vols went 5-7 heading into the NCAA Tournament. In all 4 NCAA Tournament appearances under Barnes, they lost to lower-seeded teams. Before the Duke game, Barnes’ last NCAA Tournament victory against a single-digit seed game in 2008. Even in a 3-point win against 13-seed Louisiana in the first round, the Vols couldn’t keep their foot on the gas after getting an 18-point lead in the second half.

(Of course, there was a technical foul called on the Tennessee bench, as well as Louisiana coach Bob Marlin for chirping back after Vescovi celebrated a defensive stand. “(Vescovi)) was frustrated because he’d scored three points, I felt like, and he came, he was over there cheering and yelling at our bench and right in front of me. And all I told him was you’re better than that,” Marlin said.)

The Vols had good reason to embrace an “us against the world” mindset against Duke. They can insist they didn’t hear the doubt. Their play — and maybe even the way they celebrated a hard-fought win — suggested otherwise. Duke looked like a team that had lost the heavyweight fight.

If Tennessee is going to reach its first Final Four, it likely won’t just be the byproduct of rock fights. Nkamhoua’s 23 second-half points and some timely 3-point shooting from Vescovi fueled the Round of 32 win. As much as Tennessee would love to win simply by “bringing teams into the mud,” clutch shots will have to be made.

It might not be realistic to expect another game like that from Nkamhoua, but Josiah-Jordan James hasn’t gotten going yet. A team with limited offensive options could use a hot-shooting game from Tyreke Key or perhaps Aidoo and/or Plavsic can offer a post presence against an FAU team who lacks size outside of 7-footer Vladislav Goldin.

It’s by no means a given that Tennessee is in the clear just because the Midwest Region saw top-seed Purdue and aforementioned Duke fail to make it out of the opening weekend. It’s also not a given that the bruising Vols will be as effective defensively against an FAU team that puts up 26.4 3-point attempts per contest.

But whatever lies ahead, it’s become clear that this is a peak-Barnes Tennessee team.

Call them physical. Call them dirty. Call them a tough team to play or call them a tough team to watch. They don’t care.

They’ll just keep blowing kisses.