Prior to last night’s 83-58 drubbing at the hands of Kentucky, February 11th, 2017, saw the Vols lose a nail-biter at home to the Georgia Bulldogs, 76-75. To the casual observer, this may have seemed like a disappointing setback. For coaches and administrators, however, this game went exactly according to plan.
Knoxville has been buzzing with the potential of an unexpected NCAA basketball tournament bid, something that hasn’t happened since Cuonzo Martin left for California. The sudden expectations have head coach Rick Barnes following the blueprint for success laid out by the football team last fall.
In a pre-game interview, Barnes noted: “We’ve achieved the great start to the season, now we need to figure out how to throw the year away over the last few games.” He gave enormous credit and praise to Butch Jones for building fans’ expectations impossibly high before bringing them crashing down in the last weeks of the football season. “Luckily,” said Barnes, “I have [Butch] to guide me through the process, someone who’s been here before and knows what to do.”
Coming into the game against Georgia on Saturday, the Vols had won 6 of their last 8 games, and experts such as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi were labeling the squad as one which had what it takes to make it to March Madness. The game itself served as a snapshot of the team’s plans for the rest of the season.
Post-game, freshman forward Grant Williams said, “I felt like a leader out there today. I was able to score pretty easily, and I helped us get out to a nice lead in the second half. But I was also able to let the team know when it was time to let Georgia’s comeback begin.”
Fans exiting the arena said they were unable to escape feelings of “heartbreak,” “devastation,” and “déjà vu.” In his post-game press conference, Barnes said he was happy with how his team handled the early success and were ultimately able to turn it into a crushing blow to their postseason chances. Last night’s loss to Kentucky may have sealed that fate.
Barnes and his team may try to fit in one more winning streak before the end, but that would risk not having adequate time to lose enough games to ensure the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee passes on the Vols.
When reporters caught up with Butch Jones after Saturday’s game, he said, “I’ll be there for Rick if he ever needs anything. I think he’s doing great, though. Who knows, he may even be able to teach me a thing or two!” With the success of Barnes’s squad so far this season, there’s still a lot to play for. While the title of Life Champions is reserved for the football squad, perhaps the basketball team can be champions of Progress, Hard Work, or the NIT.