The (Ir)regular season for the Tennessee Vols

Freshman Grant Williams impressed throughout his first year on Rocky Top. • photos by Bill Foster

by Wil Wright and Rusty Odom

IDENTITY CRISIS

One of the most frustratingly recurring phrases to appear, regardless of outcomes, at the end of Tennessee Volunteers sports seasons is “Season of Disappointment.”

1998’s football season, which was a few strokes of luck away from being identical to 2015-16 Vols Football season, is the only modern exception to the rule. To be fair, if you scroll way back, Tennessee did have a golden age of football, where it experienced the kind of success that might lead one to have the kind of expectations that would drive such annual “disappointment” when a team falls short of excellence. But that was in football. And it stretched from the 1920’s through the early 1950’s.

In basketball, Tennessee has been wildly inconsistent and reached the national quarter final one time, under current Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. But, glimpses of success under Pearl seem to have deeply skewed the expectations of the Tennessee fanscape, so much so that fans called for Cuonzo Martin, Pearl’s replacement who never had a losing season at Tennessee and led the Vols to a Sweet-16, to be fired. And he was three successful years into his career at Tennessee. Martin had beaten cancer, but could not beat the cancer of bloated Tennessee expectations.

Fast forward to 2017, where Tennessee was picked by the media to finish next-to-last in the SEC, and for good reason. The team would be light on experience, size and quality depth, largely populated by freshmen and sophomores, with the exception of 5th year transfer Lew Evans and the forever inconsistent and injured, but deeply talented Senior, Robert Hubbs III. So, a logical follower of this team might set their expectations there. Before the season, people who are paid to analyze UT basketball were expecting this team to be among the SEC’s least successful.

The season was set to begin in the traditional way, with an utter thrashing of several lesser teams, to ease big programs into the season before early-year tournaments. The Vols followed this script by beating up on Slippery Rock, only to immediately blow it, losing at home to Chattanooga, a school that should be looking for a new AD right now, but that’s a different story.

The Vols rebounded from the Chatt upset, but just barely. Rick Barnes’s young squad narrowly escaped a visit from gritty Appalachian State with a single-digit win (sound familiar, football fans?). So at this point early in the year, a team that was supposed to be bad looked like it might just be pretty bad. That’s where the expectations for this team get a little weird. You might expect this story to go “then, the team came together and started winning, and expectations rose” but no.

The Vols would split the next 6 games 3-3, beating up on lesser-thans and losing spirited meetings with North Carolina, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Those three losses, it seems, became the focal point of fans image of the team, moving forward. Tennessee would get another chance at a national power, facing Gonzaga in Nashville. They lost again, by 10 points. Early season out of conference play ended with the Vols at 8-5, but the four spirited losses to strong teams seemed to raise confidence in the team, heading into league play.

The SEC in 2016-17 was nothing special, and heading into conference play, the league was positioned to be, as usual, top heavy, with most of the talent tending to end up at Florida and, more so, Kentucky. Still, Tennessee returned from the holidays with hope that, since the conference seemed to be in a down cycle, the Vols could conjure the spirit they had showcased against teams like North Carolina, and make a strong run in the SEC and find their way to the NCAA Tournament bubble for an at-large bid. Unfortunately, the first two weeks of SEC play was far more reminiscent of the Vols team that struggled with Chattanooga, going 2-3, including home losses to South Carolina and Arkansas.  If our expectations were still finishing last in the SEC, that was still a strong possibility. No disappointment in sight! The Vols were gelling, though, behind strong performances by a finally healthy, finally focused Robert Hubbs, and eventual Freshman All-SEC selection, Grant Williams. Only time would tell if the Vols would find a way to defy the lowly pre-season expectations, and thus, be disappointing.

Robert Hubbs III played well when healthy during his Senior season.


HOPE

Then it all seemed to click.

On January 14th, Tennessee traveled to Vanderbilt, having lost three conference games in a row. It looked as if the preseason prognostications were accurate, but UT’s youth put together 40 minutes of fun basketball in one of the hardest places to play in the SEC and handed the Commodores a home loss.

It was a hopeful win, not only for fans, but for the team as well. Led by Jordan Bone’s 23 points, five Vols scored in double figures, and four of them will return next season.

UT followed the win with a road loss at Ole Miss, but would go on to win five of its next six games.

Tennessee avenged the loss to Ole Miss during the stretch, but first reeled off wins against Mississippi State, Kentucky, Kansas State and Auburn.

And just like that, Tennessee was on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.

THE WALL

With tourney talk dominating local sports talk radio in the midst of an Athletic Director search, it was apparent that fans were ready for Tennessee to continue its overachievement.

But, as previously mentioned, the 2016-17 Vols were young, and the wall that young players typically hit toward the end of the year was being built, brick by brick.

After leading by 14 in the second half, the Vols lost to Georgia at home on February 11th, and the hopes of an NCAA berth began to wane. UT lost four of its next five, with the lone win coming against a Missouri team that won but two games in the SEC all year. This stretch included losses to Kentucky in Lexington and at LSU, which had won a single SEC game before defeating the Vols.

The wheels had officially come off, and at halftime of Tennessee’s final game of the regular season, the Vols trailed 36-22 against an Alabama team that still had hopes of making The Big Dance.

UT shot 20% in the first half of the season finale, but something changed at halftime. It was Senior Day at Thompson Boling Arena, so it’s fitting that Senior Lew Evans had his finest game as a Vol in his final home game.  Evans went off for 14 points and five rebounds and led the Vols back to an unlikely five point win. As time expired, fellow Senior Robert Hubbs III was cramming home a dunk-contest-caliber slam. It was a great moment for the Vol’s elder-statesmen.

Rick Barnes coaches youthful UT team during comeback win against Alabama.

FIN

It’s fitting that Tennessee left folks scratching their heads as the regular season ended. It’s what Tennessee does. And while it’s easy to separate this Vols season into three sectors, many questions arise when examining what to expect in the future.

Can UT transform one of those early season close calls into a victory? Can the group of rising Sophomores be dominant when it’s time for league play?

While they will have a year of experience under their belts, this team will be even younger in 2017-18 in at least one way. As of now, the Tennessee roster does not feature a student athlete who will be a Senior next year.

The future is bright for the youthful Vols, but if those who follow Tennessee have learned anything, there’s no need to count your chickens before they hatch.

If we’re to learn from past experience, we should probably expect more of the same, with the potential of higher ceiling next season and perhaps more substantial and long-lasting talk of a NCAA Tournament bid. But it’s no guarantee.

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