Where does the season go after a debilitating loss that ultimately costs a team a tournament bid? Well, you take what you can get, and for Tennessee, that’s the NIT. As much as that Ole Miss loss left a bitter taste in my mouth, let’s be honest, for 97% of this season, I didn’t see the Vols getting close to the tournament. There was a point, post Austin-Peay, that I didn’t see this team making the NIT. So let’s forget that crappy loss, the stupid call, and focus on the positive takeaways thus far, the immediate future (winning the NIT) and carrying momentum into next season.
Key Victories vs. Florida, vs. UCONN, @ Florida, and vs. Vanderbilt
Not a person in the country would believe that Tennessee would knock off Florida not once, but twice this season. In those two games, the Vols dominated the Gators. The first victory looked like a “signature win” for Cuonzo Martin, one of those games that one team steps up and plays for, but the truth is, Tennessee found out they could hang with just about anyone when they played their style of basketball. Along with the Florida wins, they knocked of defending champs UCONN and won a big game over in-state rival Vanderbilt that secured a second place finish in the conference.
I don’t think the sole reason for Tennessee’s run was Jarnell Stokes. He certainly helped, but you have to give credit to Martin. Stokes is an incredible talent. It’s a very assuring site to see that type of talent remaining in Knoxville even with Pearl’s departure. If anything, it’s proof that Tennessee is still a place for top-tier players to come and play. The best news of all is. . .
The Vols can win the NIT
Down the stretch, Tennessee played incredible basketball. To be able to make the run they did, being out of tournament contention to nearly fighting their way in, this Tennessee team has shown plenty of resilience and the fact is, they’ve gotten better each week. John Callipari said this team was a “tournament team.” Well they didn’t make it, ipso facto, Tennessee is a clear favorite to win the NIT. They’re the number one seed, they will be playing most of their games at home, where they haven’t lost since January to Kentucky, and this team could come out with a chip on its shoulder. If anything, the Vols can vent anger and wreak havoc.
For Tennessee, the NIT, if anything, is more time to practice and get experience. The momentum alone would be huge going into next season, but the chance to continue playing as a time in game situations will be a nice bonus and consolation. Especially for a player like Jarnell Stokes who is only going to get exponentially better with more experience.
There’s no drawback to advancing further and further into the tournament. Alabama lost to Wichita State in the finals last year, both of those teams are now in the Big Dance. Momentum is huge.
Most of the team is coming back
The Vols lose Renaldo Woolridge, Tyler Summitt, and Cameron Tatum. The only player from that list that ever saw significant playing time was Tatum, other than that, Maymon, Stokes, Golden and the rest of the team will be returning next season. Score. This team could be scary next season.
The Vols have two options, they can give up, like Mississippi State, or you can make the best of the hand you’re dealt and keep playing. Sure, it stinks to fall short, but there is plenty to be excited about right now and for the future.
And, the finals are in New York, what’s better than playing basketball in Madison Square Garden?