Tennessee basketball: Winning NCAA Tournament with Vols resume would be extremely rare

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 17: Bruce Pearl of the Auburn Tigers gives celebrates after 84-64 win over the Tennessee Volunteers during the final of the SEC Basketball Championships at Bridgestone Arena on March 17, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 17: Bruce Pearl of the Auburn Tigers gives celebrates after 84-64 win over the Tennessee Volunteers during the final of the SEC Basketball Championships at Bridgestone Arena on March 17, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Tennessee basketball’s March Madness resume includes no conference title. Can the Volunteers still win the NCAA Tournament national championship?

On one hand, Tennessee basketball is in good company with a top-2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. After all, the national champions are very rarely anything below a No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed. However, the Vols are not in good company on another hand.

Without winning the SEC regular season or tournament championship, they have an uphill climb to win the national championship. In fact, if they do win a national championship, they will do it with a resume that only one other national champion ever has. Let’s break everything down.

Only twice this century have teams won the national title without winning either their conference regular season or tournament championship. Ironically it managed to happen in back to back years as well.

The Duke Blue Devils won it in 2015, and the UCONN Huskies won it in 2014. UCONN was a Cinderella team as a No. 7 seed, so Duke in 2015 is a better comparison for the Vols. They were still a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, entering with a 29-4 record.

Still, such an accomplishment gets rarer when you look back at history. It has only happened six times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in the 1980s. In fact, of all 80 NCAA Tournament national champions, only 12 won it without winning a conference tournament or regular season championship.

By the way, for years, only the conference champion made the NCAA Tournament anyway. So that stat is a bit skewed, but it still shows how rare the accomplishment is. And at-large bids have been a regular thing since the late 1970s.

When you break down the nature of those 12 national champions, though, the accomplishments get rarer. Five of them were Independents, and they included the legendary 1966 Texas Western Miners, who went 29-1, and the 1963 Loyola Ramblers, who went 29-2. In fact, the only Independent who was a Cinderella national champion was Marquette, who finished 25-7.

Still, that eliminates the number to seven national champions who played in a conference and failed to win their regular season or conference tournament. But then three of those teams, Indiana Hoosiers in 1940, the Michigan Wolverines in 1989 and the Arizona Wildcats in 1997, did not even have a conference tournament.

Now, we’re down to four teams: Duke and UCONN this century, the Kansas Jayhawks in 1988 and the amazing Cinderella Villanova Wildcats in 1985. But we can even break this down further to show how rare of company the Vols would be in to win the NCAA Tournament.

Duke and UCONN both won early season tournaments they played in this century. The Blue Devils won the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Championship at Barclays Center in Brooklyn back in November of 2014, and the Huskies won the 2K Sports Classic Championship at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan back in November of 2013.

Tennessee basketball, meanwhile, had a chance to win its own early-season tournament. They also played at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this past November in the NIT Season Tip-Off, and they lost the championship game in overtime to the Kansas Jayhawks.

Related Story. 5 things we learned about Vols from SEC Tournament. light

By the way, Michigan in 1989 also managed to win an early-season tournament in the Maui Classic. So that’s two big ways that their overall resume differs from the Vols’ resume entering the NCAA Tournament.

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So now we’re down to this: Teams that won a national championship but didn’t win an early-season tournament, a conference tournament or a conference regular season title and had the opportunity to play in a conference tournament. Only two remain: Villanova in 1985 and Kansas in 1988.

But wait, there’s one more caveat. Villanova did not play in an early-season tournament, something that also applied to Indiana in 1940 and Arizona in 1997. In that regard, we can cross Villanova off that list.

Now, we’re left with one team. Only one team failed to win a championship in an early-season tournament they competed in, failed to win their conference regular season title, and failed to win the conference tournament that they competed in but still won the national championship: the 1987-1988 Kansas Jayhawks. They went 27-11 that year under Larry Brown, and Roy Williams took over for them the next year.

Are you ready for this, though? Rick Barnes’s first year as a head basketball coach was also in 1987-1988, and it was with the George Mason Patriots. So if the Vols are to win the NCAA Tournament, they would accomplish something only one other team has ever accomplished.

Next. A look at Vols' road to the Final Four. dark

That team just happened to accomplish such a feat in Barnes’s first year as a head coach. Maybe that’s a little bit of things coming full circle in the making. Or, maybe, it shows how much the deck is stacked against the Vols in this year’s NCAA Tournament. We’re about to find out which one is true soon enough.