What does success really look like in the NCAA Tournament

What qualifies as success in the NCAA Tournament? Sweet Sixteen? Final Four? National Championship? Or simply winning at least one tournament game every year?
Texas v Tennessee
Texas v Tennessee / Jared C. Tilton/GettyImages

Tennessee basketball advanced to the Elite Eight for the second time in program history and the first time since Rick Barnes came to Rocky Top in 2015. The Vols had to beat Saint Peter's, Texas, and Creighton to make their deepest run since 2010. But what does success look like in the NCAA Tournament?

Of course, winning a national championship or even advancing to the Final Four would be a success for most programs. Can teams have a successful season without making a deep run in the tournament? Is Tennessee's 2023-24 season considered a successful year with an Elite Eight appearance?

Texas and Barnes ended their relationship after he wasn't winning enough in March. That's the most important month of the basketball season. It's when legends are made, but how is success truly measured in college basketball and March Madness?

The three highest-paid college basketball coaches and hall of famers didn't make it past the second round in this year's tournament. John Calipari has been on the hot seat for a couple of years and has only won one tournament game in this decade. Tom Izzo and Bill Self have had a bit more success since 2020, but both were still eliminated in the second round.

After Baylor won the National Championship in 2021, they've been bounced in the second round every year since. Some people and analysts expected the Bears to make another deep run this year only to lose to Clemson in the second round.

Simply put, winning in college basketball is hard, especially in March. You're facing the hottest teams in America, playing with a chip on their shoulder, and need the perfect matchups and performances to make a deep run. Some programs have figured out the key to success better than others, but for the most part, there's no guarantee the best teams in the country are still playing past the first weekend.

Part of that is a result of the talent gap being closed a small amount every year. It seemed like a decade ago it would take a minor miracle for a 14, 15, or 16 seed to win a first-round game, but now it's expected at least once every year. Tennessee has faced unfortunate draws with early exits against some recent Cinderellas Loyola-Chicago and Florida Atlantic.

While the best programs in the nation have been stagnant, Barnes has slowly been building positive success in Knoxville, all while being accused of being incapable of winning in March. Sure, he doesn't have a National Championship or a lot of Final Four appearances, but he has put Tennessee in one of the best positions to consistently win every year compared to any other Vols basketball coach.

Barnes has a less-than-impressive 9-6 record in the NCAA Tournament at Tennessee but has built the team into one that could soon expect a minimum of Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight appearances every year. In the past four years, Tennessee has advanced one round deeper into the tournament each year.

Tennessee followed that trend again this year and advanced to the Elite Eight. Would that be a success for this year's team? Given Tennessee has only made one Elite Eight appearance in program history, I would consider that a success.

I also understand fans who expected a Final Four from this year's team. There is too much talent on this year's team to expect less. The 2019 team is the same as this one. They probably should have advanced further than the Sweet Sixteen but, unfortunately, met the hottest team in America.

I'm not blaming Barnes for Tennessee's failures in the postseason or defending him, where Tennessee was the better team on the court and should have won. Knowing we were ecstatic as a fan base to make a Sweet Sixteen before Barnes, his ability to win and raise expectations to a minimum of a Sweet Sixteen appearance most years is a success. 

I have had my fair share of complaints about Barnes, but there's no doubt he is a big reason I'm even writing about Tennessee's success in the NCAA Tournament. I don't know how much longer Barnes plans to stay, but he has the Vols trending up compared to "better" basketball programs like Florida, Louisville, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Kentucky, Georgetown, Syracuse, and Arizona. If that's not success, then I don't know what it is. 

So, to answer my question, what does success really look like in the NCAA Tournament? Of course, Final Fours and National Championships are the easy answer, but also continuing to improve in the tournament, winning more every year and advancing deeper in the tournament is what success looks like. Barnes isn't known for going on consistent Final Four runs, but if the positive momentum continues, that could change in a few years on Rocky Top.