Eight Games, Pt. 7: Return to Hot Chicken

Aftermath

The coronation of this game was not all that immediate; Tennessee only rose two spots on KenPom from #38 to #36 when it happened. It became apparent quickly that this was a different Tennessee team than years past, however. The next day, they’d play #5 Villanova – the eventual national champion – and lead by 12 points at halftime behind a monster team-wide performance that included 12 points from Grant Williams and, for one half, an out-shooting of Villanova from deep.

At halftime of that game, it marked the happiest I had felt as a Tennessee basketball fan since March 2010. Things felt like they were turning around at a pace I truly hadn’t seen coming. Of course, this was the eventual national champion, and national champions can do things like rip off a 28-4 run in 8:17 to go from down 15 to up nine. Just like that, Tennessee’s upset shot had ended, but they’d made something clear in the Bahamas: this was a new Tennessee basketball, and the future really was bright. They’d end it with a mostly stress-free win over NC State the next day: November 24, 2017.

Nothing important happened on November 25, 2017, but the next day was unlike any other in modern Tennessee history.

The next Tennessee basketball game was on November 29, a home date with a Mercer team that looked fairly plucky at the time. The atmosphere inside Thompson-Boling Arena is still the most unique I’ve experienced at a sporting event to date: institution colliding with uprising, money colliding with fandom, the elites colliding with the populace.

I watched a student with an anti-John Currie sign get Brock Lesnar suplexed by security. Tennessee won, 84-60.

In the midst of the constant madness and upheaval the football program gave fans, the basketball program just…quietly kept doing their thing. Wins over Georgia Tech, Lipscomb (NCAA Tournament participant), Furman (Top 100 in KenPom), and Wake Forest (uh…Wake Forest!) followed, with only a tight home loss to #7 North Carolina interrupting the proceedings. Tennessee entered SEC play 18th in KenPom, their highest ranking in four seasons, and then immediately face-planted with an 0-2 start.

The Hell Arena strikes again

They had a Saturday night date with a 17th-ranked Kentucky team that was 12-2 but looked quite wobbly. Naturally, Tennessee started off by playing a horrendous first half of basketball, trailing 37-29. Gone was all that positive momentum from November; it was almost like a reverse Cuonzo where you looked like garbage from January onward after an awesome first two months. Tennessee trailed, 47-44, with 14 minutes left. Around this time, Rick Barnes decided to go to a zone defense to attempt to confuse a Kentucky lineup that A.) was made up entirely of freshmen and sophomores; B.) was one of the least-prolific three-point shooting teams in the nation.

It worked.

Over the span of six minutes, Kentucky shot 1-for-8 from the field, missing three deep balls. Tennessee, meanwhile, finally found holes in the Kentucky defense and made them extremely frustrated. Sacha Killeya-Jones, who you were absolutely not expecting to somewhat remember when you clicked this link, picked up a technical. Kentucky started committing frustration fouls left and right. It went from 47-44 Kentucky to 60-50 Tennessee and it more or less held at that margin the rest of the way. Season saved by Barnes and the boys.

We haven’t touched on it yet, but something of note happened in the leadup to this season. At SEC Media Days, Tennessee was picked by the league’s sportswriters to finish 13th. Not in the country. In the conference. There wasn’t any real sort of numbers-based defense for this; it was just a complete rejection of whatever they believed Barnes was doing and the roster he had built. To be fair, some amount of skepticism was surely fine. But…13th? Below all sorts of awful teams that didn’t come close to the NCAA Tournament? Below an Ole Miss team that went 12-20?

It was dumb then, and it began to look even dumber as the season went on. That Kentucky game proved to be a springboard with which Tennessee launched off of with glee. 9-4, 0-2 SEC turned into 18-5, 8-3 SEC in one month’s time. A tight road loss to a decent Missouri team was the only blemish. Included were demolitions (68-45 over Iowa State, 84-61 over LSU, 94-61 over Ole Miss), tight battles (70-63 over South Carolina, 67-62 over Vanderbilt), and ultimately, the biggest Tuesday night game Tennessee had played in years, at Rupp Arena against the Kentucky team who started this streak.

Tennessee went back and forth with the Cats all game long; neither team held a lead of more than four points. (FOUR POINTS!) It was fairly officiated, and both teams brought their defensive A-game. Tennessee trailed, 58-56, with 1:07 to play. They hadn’t swept Kentucky since Jerry Green did it in 1999. Even against a weakened Kentucky team, it clearly meant a lot, and this was potentially their biggest moment of the regular season.

When you have big moments, you turn to big-moment players. Enter Lamonte Turner.

On the other end, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has gone on to be a fabulous professional, committed a turnover on Kentucky’s penultimate possession. Was what happened next the wisest decision, necessarily? Maybe not. But when you see a sure two points, along with a chance to release 20 years of bad memories in Lexington, Kentucky, you simply have to take it.

In Year Three of Rick Barnes, Tennessee left the state of Kentucky in early February with an 18-5, 8-3 SEC record, a #15 ranking in the AP Poll, and a #7 ranking on KenPom. What was unfolding before everyone’s eyes was a very, very special season. Or at least that’s what everyone was hoping, of course. Tennessee fans know what happened next, but perhaps it’s best to just explain this stretch of results with two alternate, yet agreeing theories.

  1. Tennessee spent a month’s worth of their emotion and energy to beat Kentucky;
  2. Check out this new hot thing called “regression to the mean.”

Tennessee, a team that hadn’t shot better than 34% from three in a decade, spent the first three months of the season hitting 39.1% of its threes. Opponents, who averaged 35.7% otherwise when not playing Tennessee, were hitting only 33% of their attempts. Obviously, that doesn’t completely explain “28-point loss to a mediocre SEC team,” but that might help you understand why Tennessee suddenly went from odds-on Elite Eight team to shooting 30% from three and 40% from two across a random three-game stretch.

Panic ensued. Same Old Tennessee! Of course they couldn’t be that good. No team at Tennessee could possibly be that good. Tennessee fell from 7th to 15th in Ken’s rankings, then to 19th in the AP Poll. Perhaps this season wasn’t so promising after all. Which naturally leads us to Tennessee going on a four-game win streak, securing a share of the SEC regular season title, and making it to the SEC Championship Game for the first time in nine years to play…Kentucky.

The less said about that game, the better. Tennessee trailed by 17, then proceeded to lead by three points barely eight minutes later. It was a very strange game with a lot of weird back-and-forth, including Admiral Schofield getting hurt late in the game and John Calipari almost entirely removing Nick Richards from his rotation. The only real memories I’ve held onto from this one are that Jordan Bone hit one of the most inexplicable threes I can remember:

And Tennessee lost a heartbreaker, 77-72. Which ultimately didn’t matter for seeding whatsoever, but added to Tennessee’s laundry list of SEC Tournament haunts over the last 40 years.

They gave Tennessee a 3-seed and placed them in Virginia’s bracket. Virginia was the overall #1 seed, which wasn’t ideal, but Tennessee was matched up with the lowest #2 seed (Cincinnati) and the lowest #4 seed (Arizona). Also, the #5 seed in their bracket? Kentucky. It wasn’t that hard to squint and see a fourth Tennessee-Kentucky battle to make the Final Four.

(7) Rhode Island vs. (10) Oklahoma was the first matchup of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Tennessee vs. 14-seeded Wright State was the second. For…reasons, there were a few commentators who spent the week insisting that Wright State could keep it close. The 131st-ranked team in KenPom had the 249th-ranked offense and their best player was a 275-pound bowling ball that didn’t do much other than post up, but, hey, anybody has a chance.

Tennessee sent Wright State back to their hotel rooms to start packing after about 12 minutes of play. Wright State took a 4-3 lead three minutes in, then never led again. It wasn’t within single digits at any point during the second half. It looked like Tennessee was fully, completely in control, and a 73-47 win simply felt right. Things felt pretty positive, especially leading into that Saturday’s matchup where they’d play the winner of #6 seed Miami (FL) (a team ranked 37th on KenPom) or #11 seed Loyola Chicago (41st, but with an offense ranked lower than all but six of the top 46 teams in the field).

Loyola won on an amazing last-second shot, which, cool, doesn’t really effect how I felt about the Tennessee matchup at the time. Tennessee would be favored over either team by about five points. Imagine sitting there as a Tennessee fan and watching the rest of that Thursday unfold.

Sure, Kentucky barely held on to beat Davidson. Big whoop. There goes your 4-seed and more than a few people’s Elite Eight pick. That was something in its own right. There goes one of your potential biggest competitors.

The next day, it was about 3:30 PM Eastern, #15 seed Georgia State led #2 seed Cincinnati 47-46, and things really began to get interesting. Cincinnati couldn’t break a zone defense; could Barnes pull the Kentucky trick a second time if they drew Cincinnati in the Sweet Sixteen? Cincinnati eventually overpowered Georgia State, but the cracks began to show.

You go out to a bar with friends after work because you want to watch part of the NCAA Tournament together. You see #7 seed Nevada come back from 14 down to beat #10 seed Texas in overtime; you watch #4 seed Auburn (SEC co-champion) fart around with #13 seed College of Charleston for a full 40 before surviving. Then you go home before the late games start because, well, it’s late and none of them look all that appealing. #9 seed Florida State would demolish #8 seed Missouri; #5 seed Clemson easily handled #12 seed New Mexico State; #11 seed Syracuse upset #6 TCU in an extremely boring game.

But it’s the scoreline you didn’t expect, when you get home around 10:30, that shocks you most: #1 seed Virginia 21, #16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County 21. Then again, it’s pretty easy to assume that’s a one-half blip and Virginia goes on to win by 14 points or whatever.

Except the #16 seed goes on a 17-3 run to open the second half and never lets the #1 seed within single digits again.

Putting aside how amazing this was to watch for a second: again, please imagine being a Tennessee fan that Friday night. You’re facing an #11 seed tomorrow. The #1 seed just got knocked out. So did the #4. The #2 seed looked extremely vulnerable. The #5 seed is a team you’ve beaten twice. There is no #6 seed left. In this moment, the path to the Final Four hadn’t felt more clear.

I think it was an hour before the game when Tennessee officially announced Kyle Alexander wouldn’t be available. Alexander had become the unsung hero of the roster; a guy who never scored that many points but always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. That increased the worry a tad. That worry went away quickly when Tennessee started with a 15-6 run in the first 4:30 against Loyola Chicago.

For four minutes and 30 seconds, it felt like Tennessee was well on their way to the next round. Then Tennessee didn’t score again for seven minutes. The Loyola defense that put #1 seed Illinois in a blender seven months ago was born in this Tournament; it was what turned Tennessee into a pile of bodies for 33 minutes. Loyola went on the world’s slowest runs in this game: 8-0 over the course of almost six minutes; 11-1 across five minutes or so. They never looked that great on offense, but Tennessee bit on pump fake after pump fake. It was a game specifically designed to frustrate those who loved this team most.

Loyola just kept hitting jumper after jumper. You prayed for in-game regression to the mean for both sides and it never appeared. Tennessee looked lost. It felt like what I imagine Southwest Missouri State felt like. It was 58-48, Loyola, with four minutes left, and I remember thinking that Tennessee would not score 10 more points against this team if you gave them ten minutes to do it.

With one last burst of energy, Tennessee came back from the dead. Schofield hit a three to briefly make it 58-51. Bowden came back 44 seconds later to make it 60-54. Jordan Bone hit one of his soon-to-be-patented mid-range jumpers to make it 61-56. Lamonte hit a three after a steal to get it to 61-59. After a misfired possession with a minute left, Co-SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams got the ball in the paint. He got fouled. Good thing he hit the shot first.

Then he hit the free throw. Tennessee had scored 14 points in under four minutes after scoring 14 points in the previous 11. A few seconds later, it felt like Tennessee was going to bring it home earlier than expected when Williams deflected a Loyola pass and it initially felt like a Loyola player had touched the ball last. The officials reviewed this for what seemed like years. They made the correct call, which was Loyola’s ball. It is what it is.

Clayton Custer of Loyola got the ball on the other end, put up a 14-footer that hit the rim, then the backboard, and went in. It is a collection of bounces that are very hard to replicate; you have to hit the rim at a certain angle for the ball to bounce straight up onto the backboard, which then requires another perfect angle to go back down into the basket. Basketball is unfair geometry. You will not see this play GIF’d because I refuse to watch it ever again. It is what it is.

Tennessee’s season ended at least one round earlier than it should have. It only grew more heartbreaking when #2 seed Cincinnati lost the next day. Tennessee, had they won and then defeated a #7 seed in the Sweet Sixteen, would have played a #9 seed to make their first-ever Final Four. It is what it is.

All of this sucked. Massively. But: Tennessee would return all but one player from a top-15 team that was a very unlucky pair of bounces away from making at least the Sweet Sixteen. They brought back the Co-SEC Player of the Year. Schofield flirted with the NBA, then returned. The 2018-19 season, which would mark a watershed new era for Rick Barnes, was going to be the most anticipated the school had seen since 2007-08, if not ever.

To be continued on Friday.

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