Eight Games, Pt. 3: Born to Run

Before

12-seed Milwaukee played 5-seed Alabama in the second game of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. It was a typical cold day in Cleveland, Ohio: 41 degrees for the high. Alabama led briefly early, then Milwaukee – by way of a press that forced 22 turnovers – stuffed Alabama in a box and sent them home.

Two days later, 12-seed Milwaukee would draw 4-seed Boston College on a slightly warmer Saturday in Cleveland. This Boston College team started the 2004-05 season by winning 20 straight games, briefly garnering a #3 ranking in the AP Poll. They’d obviously falter to fall to a 4-seed, but they were widely considered a great basketball team. It didn’t matter. Milwaukee dispensed with them as well, 83-75, in a game where they forced 22 turnovers and hit 11 threes. It was a completely different style of basketball than many were used to, and some teams simply couldn’t deal with it.

The run ended with a loss to eventual national runner-up Illinois in the Sweet Sixteen. That also didn’t matter. For one brief, harried spring in Wisconsin, Bruce Pearl was a regional and national hero.

The day after this loss, Hamilton struck. He offered the job to Pearl, who was introduced three days later. Heading into his first season with a makeshift roster, little was expected of the new man in Year One. Tennessee was picked to finish fifth in the East Division by SEC media members, and if you extrapolated their vote total to the conference as a whole, the consensus expectation was that the Volunteers would be roughly the 9th-best team in a 12-team SEC. The records of the 9th-best SEC team the previous four years in conference play: 6-10, 7-9, 5-11, 6-10. So, yeah, expectations were really low. If the team managed to hit .500 in SEC play, that would be legitimate progress and a positive trend.

Pearl’s first season began well enough: a 5-0 start against a bevy of overmatched opponents gave him a soft landing in Knoxville, The team was playing up-tempo, exciting, interesting basketball; only one of the first five games resulted in Tennessee scoring fewer than 83 points. However, excitement doesn’t always equal perfection; Tennessee also allowed opponents to score 76 or more in three of these five games. The seeds of something good were there, but it didn’t appear to be materializing yet.

After a now-unthinkable 11-day break between games, Tennessee would head to Austin, Texas for a December 17 showdown against the #6 Texas Longhorns. Texas was coached by Rick Barnes, had a massive amount of preseason hype (starting the year #2 overall), and already owned a pair of wins over Top 20 competition before a mildly surprising neutral-site blowout loss to #1 Duke the week prior. Texas featured two now-and-future stars in P.J. Tucker and LaMarcus Aldridge; Tennessee had a scrawny Kentuckian named Chris Lofton who seemed promising, a quality point guard in C.J. Watson, and [citation needed].

Tennessee entered this Saturday as a 12-point underdog. For reference, that’s the same spread as 2020-21 Tennessee had against Tom Crean and Georgia at home this past February, a game Tennessee led by 20+ at various points in. Tennessee seemed to be a hair better than expected, but in most minds, this was probably just a mild speedbump for Texas to plow over en route to Rick Barnes’ second Final Four appearance. Tennessee fans, battered and bruised, tried to keep expectations low; Texas fans probably assumed they’d have a fairly quiet afternoon at the proverbial office.

NEXT PAGE: Racing in the street

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