From Tennessee’s gritty early performances this season, any level-headed fan enjoyed the moment, but wondered what the realistic ceiling is for this blue-collar, defensive minded group that seemed to simply refuse to be outworked. Sure, they looked deep, and calmly played complete games. But this is Tennessee Basketball, and in most historic context, expectations must remain tempered. Especially for a ragtag team predicted to get tossed around by the rest of the SEC.
But here we are, deep into SEC play, and the Tennessee Volunteer basketball team just keeps pushing that ceiling higher and higher, game by game. Most recently, in the form of a historic sweep of the regularly dominant Kentucky Wildcats. Tennessee’s 61-59 win at Rupp Arena, one of the most difficult road wins in all of college basketball, has to have even the most level-headed fans feeling a truly rare kind of excellent.
One of the most unusual stat lines in Tuesday’s box score was bench points. Tennessee has systematically deconstructed teams this year with the amount of quality depth Rick Barnes has built. And while Tennessee did get its most important performance from the bench, Lamonte Turner’s 31min, 16 point showing, which included the game-winning three-pointer with under a minute remaining, the rest of Tennessee’s much-celebrated depth was largely absent. Turner’s 31 minutes on the floor was more than the rest of the bench combined (27 minutes). And Turner’s 16 points was…16 more than the rest of the bench combined. Even the reliable sharp-shooter James Daniel III was mostly a non-contributor to the box score, going 0-4 shooting and giving up 3 turnovers. The absence of arguably Tennessee’s greatest strength, its deep productive bench, makes winning at Rupp all the more impressive. This wasn’t remotely Tennessee at complete strength, and certainly not close to their best play. It may have been its most purely gritty game of the season, though.
For weeks, we’ve puzzled over Tennessee’s newfound calm, its unfazed approach to every opponent and whether this group’s previously fiery disposition was still available if extra sauce is needed to gut-out the bigger games on biggest stages. And Tuesday, when it needed it most, the Vols’ emotional leader, Admiral Schofield, finally showed his teeth after so many games of subdued poise. After a breakaway jam to seal the game, the Junior, who led all Vols with 36 minutes, flexed, howled, and then smiled into the stunned, blue crowd. Knowing that that Admiral Schofield is still available, heading into the homestretch of the season, is a really big deal.
Coming away from such a blissed-out milestone, expect Tennessee’s stoic, all-business coach to deliver a message of warning. Rick Barnes knows that the ultimate enemy of a young team experiencing success is complacency. The Vols have to play at Alabama in 4 days, and unlike Kentucky, the Tide has crazy hair and is currently playing some of the most exciting ball in the SEC, in spite of their deceptively mediocre conference record of 6-5. Remember, Bama is still one of only two teams to defeat Auburn. If Tennessee heads to Tuscaloosa with a head full of glory from Lexington, the Vols will get lit up. And Tennessee is now a quality win, and thus will get every opponent’s best game. Tennessee’s post-season potential is high, but sweeping this Kentucky/Alabama road-week would bolster the increasingly-realistic argument for the final 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. It would be Tennessee’s first ever NCAA 1-seed.
The ceiling for Tennessee seems higher and more elusive than ever, but what is certain is this: with this win at Rupp Arena, Tennessee’s profile now swells, the stage grows, the every-game stakes soar to an everything-to-lose level, and the Tennessee youth and inexperience will lurk in the margins. Tennessee will need every bit of Rick Barnes’s experience to stay about their business, and they will especially need him to inspire their bench to return to form. That consistent, quality depth has been the Vols’ X-factor, and they would not be on this meteoric rise without it. The bench cannot make a habit of disappearing in critical moments or Tennessee’s rocket ride will be over far sooner than it ought to.
But for tonight, we celebrate the first Tennessee 2-0 reg season vs UK since 1999. To quote a friend “y’all can go ahead and mop. We swept.”
Tennessee (18-5, 8-3) faces off with Alabama (15-9, 6-5) Saturday at 6pm EST and broadcast on the SEC Network.