By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Tennessee’s 84-80 loss to Auburn on Saturday understandably leaves a bitter aftertaste for the conclusion of the regular season. It cost the Vols a share of the SEC regular season title and would’ve been the first time Tennessee won back-to-back conference crowns.
The Vols still have an opportunity to claim an SEC Championship this weekend in Nashville, but the goal all season for this Tennessee team has been to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history.
A loss in the regular season finale to a good, but unranked Auburn team (the Tigers returned to the Top 25 on Monday following Saturday’s win) doesn’t feel great heading into postseason play, but there are several reasons for optimism that the Vols are still a legitimate contender for Minneapolis.
Many of Tennessee’s miscues are correctable
At halftime on Saturday Rick Barnes highlighted three buckets the Vols gave up in transition where Tennessee failed to guard. Yes, those plays hurt Tennessee, but they’re uncharacteristic of its defense when looking at the season as a whole.
Twice in the second half the Vols failed to get a shot off before a shot clock violation and the Vols committed 13 turnovers while only forcing five from Auburn. Simple mental lapses like that will bite teams in March, but those are correctable mistakes that Barnes and his staff will have figured out before the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
Barnes mentioned postgame he felt his team settled for outside shots on too many occasions. It’s understandable with the way Tennessee shot in the first half, but falling in love with the long-range offense can be dangerous and shots weren’t falling in the second half for the Vols. Grant Williams was efficient from inside and able to get to the foul line. He likely needed more touches in the second half. Expect Tennessee to make offensive adjustments after reviewing the game tape.
Welcome back, Bowden
Last Tuesday Jordan Bowden went 4-12 against Mississippi State for 12 points, his first time reaching double digits in six games. On Saturday he was even better, coming off the bench for 16 on 6-10 shooting and 3-7 from behind the arc. He made two three-pointers in his previous six games combined.
It’s great timing for Bowden to get rolling with the SEC Tournament upcoming and Lamonte Turner shooting just 3-26 from deep in his last five games. Tennessee doesn’t need to to live and die from downtown, but it’s nice having more pieces that can stretch the floor and Bowden may have to contribute more if Turner continues to struggle.
Saturday’s loss was bad, but far from catastrophic
Auburn is 14th in the KenPom rankings (ahead of LSU) and one of the best teams in the country in offensive efficiency. All four of Tennessee’s losses have come to Quadrant 1 opponents that are all tournament-bound.
History would also suggest Saturday’s loss doesn’t spell doom for Tennessee’s Final Four hopes. Last year Kansas lost its regular season finale before winning the Big 12 Tournament and reaching the national semifinals. Michigan lost to a 6-12 Northwestern team and finished fifth in the Big Ten. The Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament and made the national title game. Villanova lost to a St. John’s team in February that won only four Big East games all year and failed to win the Big East regular season title as a result. The Wildcats went on to win both the Big East Tournament and the National Championship.
Back in 2017 South Carolina finished fourth in the SEC, lost its SEC Tournament opener and still went on to the Final Four. That same year North Carolina was held to just 43 points in a late season loss to Virginia. The Tar Heels lost in the ACC Tournament semifinals, but went on to win the National Championship.
The year before, Oklahoma lost four times in February alone. The Sooners settled for third place in the Big 12 before losing in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tourney. Despite all of that, Oklahoma made the Final Four. Syracuse lost five of its last six games heading into the NCAA Tournament before reaching the Final Four as a 10-seed.
Losing at Auburn took away something significant from Tennessee, but the season-long goal is very much still intact. Tennessee’s defense has shown what its capable of after strong performances against Kentucky and Mississippi State the previous week. The Vols certainly have the makeup of a team that wouldn’t surprise anyone if they found themselves still playing basketball in April.