Tennessee basketball’s last two matchups vs. Villanova had opposite storylines
When Tennessee basketball faces the Villanova Wildcats on Saturday in the in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament in Connecticut, it’ll be the fifth meeting between the two schools but the third time since 2010 and the second time with both teams in the top 25. UT comes in at No. 17 in the AP Poll, while Villanova is No. 5.
The previous two meetings were also in November tournaments, but they opposite in every way, from the outcome of the game to the outcome of the season after the game. One was the last great moment of an era ending, and the other was an accepted bad moment of an era arriving.
Rick Barnes was still Tennessee basketball’s head coach the last time they faced the Wildcats. It was 2017. At the time, Barnes’ previous three seasons ended in him being fired by the Texas Longhorns in 2015, suffering a losing record in 2016 his first year on Rocky Top and going .500 with no postseason play in 2017, his second year there.
Now, the Vols returned all but one starter for the 2017-2018 season, but the question remained as to whether or not Barnes had lost his touch. Well, while he was set to meet Villanova in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals in The Bahamas, the game before that was the one that proved the Vols had arrived under Barnes.
That was the Battle 4 Atlantis Quarterfinals game against the Purdue Boilermakers. Tennessee basketball shocked the No. 18 ranked team with a 78-75 overtime win. That had been their first win against a ranked team away from home since 2012, when they shocked the No. 8 ranked Florida Gators on the road Cuonzo Martin’s first season.
As a result, when the Vols lost to the eventual national champion Wildcats, who were ranked No. 5 at the time, just as they are now, it was no big deal. They only lost by nine, and it was clear they had turned the corner as a program. Finishing the year 26-9 and winning a share of the SEC Championship proved that.
Seven years prior to that game, though, Tennessee basketball had another tournament matchup with Villanova that told a different story. This one was for the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship. UT was coming off an Elite Eight run the year before and returned their leading backcourt scorer while adding five-star Tobias Harris and entering their sixth year under head coach Bruce Pearl.
However, that team had lost three starters, and the storyline surrounding it was Pearl, who admitted prior to the start of the year that he lied to the NCAA about hosting recruits at his house back in 2008. That distraction hung over the Vols, so they started the year down at No. 23 and lost an exhibition game to the Indianapolis Greyhounds.
When the season started, though, all seemed fined, and UT rolled out to a 4-0 start, highlighted by a 77-72 NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals win over the VCU Rams. Then they were set to face No. 7 ranked Villanova for the preseason tournament championship.
One year earlier, the Vols had come closer than ever before at winning one of these preseason tournament championships, but they choked against the Purdue Boilermakers in the Paradise Jam Final, allowing a last-second three-pointer to lose 73-72 in the Virgin Islands. This year, they were determined to finally get over that hump.
While both Pearl and Jay Wright love playing tempo, the Vols’ tempo overwhelmed Villanova. In the process, they roared to a 78-68 win and put the college basketball world on notice that they truly were a powerhouse team.
Unlike the 2017 loss to Villanova, though, this win was short-lived. That investigation storyline still haunted the program. However, they had a couple more wins in them, beating the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders and then shocking the No. 3 Pittsburgh Panthers on the road.
That got Tennessee basketball to No. 7 in the nation. Then the bottom fell out. The Vols lost three straight games to unranked teams, two of whom were mid-majors: the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, the Charlotte 49ers and the USC Trojans.
With that came an up and down, inconsistent year that saw the Vols finish the regular season 18-13 and 8-8 in the SEC. They advanced to the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament before losing to Florida. Then, at 19-14, they got a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
News surrounding Pearl’s firing potentially being imminent reached breaking point, though, and the Vols lost that NCAA Tournament game to the Michigan Wolverines 75-45. Pearl was fired three days later.
It’s unclear what will become of these two programs after Saturday’s matchup. Barnes isn’t in the trouble Pearl was in back in 2010, but Tennessee basketball is no longer emerging under him either. They have arrived.
Because of that, win or lose, pressure is on Barnes to do better than last year’s first-round NCAA Tournament exit with so much talent. This is a great first test to see if he will, and the North Carolina Tar Heels or Purdue Boilermakers to follow up on Sunday will also be a great test.