Yikes. As predicted, Tennessee carried a head full of glory and chatter about a potentially historic #1 seed in the big dance into Tuscaloosa. And as predicted, they got furiously lit up, from start to finish. Every single “elephant in the room” for Tennessee seemed to show up on Saturday night. Lack of size? Check. Lack of leadership? Check. Disappearing bench in big games? Check. And Alabama, a young and flawed team that plays lights-out at home, played lights-out at home.To The tune of 57% from the field. It was, in fact, its largest win ever over Tennessee.
Sweeping in Lexington and Tuscaloosa was a lot to ask ever, and there’s no doubt the Vols prefer the win they got if they had a choice, but the nature of the loss will be appropriately jarring to fans. Tennessee was, without question, due for a cold night. And, at home, Alabama is playing some of the most fun, exciting, sloppily magical basketball in the country right now. But if Tennessee had cold nights against Auburn and Missouri, this game was Nuclear Winter. Tennessee has won games with their depth and the fact that somebody always takes the reigns and plays the star/leader for the game. And Tennessee has played some of the most brutal, demoralizing defense in all of college basketball. And tonight, there was simply nothing on the Vols’ tool belt to overcome the task.
The schedule is dramatically friendlier to the Vols heading into the final 7 games. That said, Tennessee (18-6, 8-4) cannot lose this Alabama game more than once. Teams will likely use this game to find ways to exploit Tennessee’s lack of size on the interior, but the real key to beating Tennessee is catching them on the right night, specifically after emotionally charged moments. Tennessee is young and Rick Barnes has largely succeeded in teaching focus and mental stability, but these are the moments where their mental youth is a difficult obstacle.
All eyes will be on Tennessee this Tuesday, as coach Frank Martin leads the South Carolina Gamecocks (13-12, 4-8) into Knoxville. USC has not been very strong in conference, but Tennessee is now at war with its own resolve, youth, build and experience. Even as heavy favorites to win out, greater teams have crumbled under the weight of their own success. The narrative from here will be whether or not Tennessee can shake off and resume their signature poise after such a brutal loss.