Another Promising Season, Another Tennessee Heartbreak in March

Photo Credit: Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

INDINAPOLIS– Tennessee came into the NCAA Tournament riding the hot hand of seven straight wins and a SEC Tournament championship. What seemed like a perfect path to make a deep run came to a quick halt after the 3-seed Vols fell 76-68 in a loss to 11-seed Michigan in Saturday’s round-two matchup at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Despite the final score, the round of 32 game was a dog fight. Tennessee and Michigan exchanged blows back and forth, accumulating 12 lead changes over the course of the game, with the largest lead for either team being the eight points that separated the final score.

Tennessee’s freshman guard Kennedy Chandler did it all, nearly posting a double-double with 19 points and nine assists. However, the performance wasn’t enough to overcome the Wolverine duo of sophomore center Hunter Dickinson (27 points, 11 rebounds, 3-5 from 3-point range) and senior guard Eli Brooks (23 points on 9-14 shooting).

The Vols, other than Chandler, were ice-cold down the final stretch. Tennessee shot a lowly 2-18 from 3-point range and 41.8% from the field. Santiago Vescovi, UT’s leading deep-ball shooter, went 2-7 from the field and 1-5 from deep.

Michigan had a game plan to stop Tennessee’s 3-point attacked and it worked. The Wolverines forced a 3-point team to be a 2-point team, and with the lack of a post-game from the Vols, the game was over long before the clock hit zero.

The Vols that showed up today were night and day from the ones that broke several program offensive records in a round one win over Longwood on Thursday. Tennessee had rode the hot hand for as long as it could, but that road ended in Indianapolis on Saturday. However, the heartbreak of Saturday’s loss doesn’t take away from the season Tennessee had.

During the 2021-22 season, the Tennessee Volunteers had some incredible moments. The Vols posted a 23-7 regular season record, climbing all the way up into the AP top-5. They had wins over several top-10 teams including Arizona, Kentucky (twice), and Auburn, went undefeated with a 16-0 record at home, and won the SEC Tournament championship for the first time in 43 years.

Photo Credit: Tennessee Athletics Press Release

Individually, the Vols found success from several key spots on the roster. Vescovi was named to the first team All-SEC, the third Vol to do so under seventh-year head coach Rick Barnes, joining Grant Williams (2018, 2019) and Admiral Schofield (2019). The first-team honors came after the junior guard concluded the regular season as the SEC’s leader in 3-point percentage (.445) and made 3-pointers (57) during conference play and averaged 14.3 points per game in SEC play while also dishing out 3.0 assists per contest. Vescovi also became the second Vol in program history to hit 100 3-pointers in a season, joining Chris Lofton who did it three times from 2005-2008.

Chandler was named to the second-team All-SEC after averaging 13.8 points, 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game while shooting 47 percent from the field. Chandler then secured an SEC Tournament MVP award. He was also named to the SEC All-Freshman team with teammate Zakai Zeigler, who was recognized on the five-man SEC All-Defensive Team after averaging 2.2 takeaways per game with 40 steals in 18 SEC games, becoming the first true freshman to do so in Tennessee history.

It was a promising season full of spectacular moments, but, like many times for Tennessee under Rick Barnes, it ended in heartbreak.

In the Barnes era in Knoxville, Tennessee basketball has never made it past the Sweet Sixteen. In fact, the Vols under Barnes have only made it past the second round just once in four trips to the NCAA Tournament. The lack of production in the tournament seems like it’s something that is starting to form a dark cloud over what is otherwise an impressive tenure for the 67-year old coach. But that’s not how Barnes sees it.

Photo Credit: Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

“I’ve been blessed to be here a bunch… we expected to get here and it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,” Barnes said following Saturday’s loss. “You don’t ever take getting here for granted. I mean, it is so hard to get here. You’re going to lose some. But the key is you try to get back up and go again. And we’re going to do that…. it hurts, it does, and if it didn’t, it would be time to quit.”

So if its not time to quit for Branes and Tennessee, where do the Vols go from here?

As of now the future of every player on the roster is uncertain except for seniors John Fulkerson and Brock Jancek, whose time in orange and white has come to an end. Tennessee has the potential to bring back not only every single starter from down the stretch, but just about every single player on the bench. There would be no ‘reloading’ for the Vols, only restarting what was ended on Saturday.

Although Tennessee has the potential to bring everyone back, with the transfer portable and the NBA draft looming, that may not be the case.

Chandler, who has been predicted to be drafted in the first round, declined to answer about his future after Saturday’s loss. It’s been believed that the talented freshman was always seen as a one-and-done player, however, Chandler exited the court on Saturday highly emotional. And with the new age of NIL becoming a big factor in college sports, there is a possibility of him returning for his sophomore season.

“I don’t think he ever walked in acting like I’m a one and done player,” Barnes said regarding Chandler. “He came in wanting to win. It was much more than that in the locker room, because this is a group of guys that are extremely close.”

Photo Credit: Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

If Chandler comes back, and even if he doesn’t, Barnes is going to have a team with some of the best chemistry in the country. His tallest task is working the transfer portal to find the Vols another big to create the post-presence that was lacking all season. Barnes is also going to have to fill a coaching position, as Tennessee assistant Mike Schwartz accepted a job to become the next head coach at East Carolina University.

For all that the future may hold, both Barnes and Vols fans will have plenty of time to look ahead at what’s to come and to reflect back on an incredible season and think “what-if.”