By Josh Ward | @Josh_Ward
Tennessee’s basketball team just completed one of the best seasons in school history.
That might not be on the top of everyone’s mind following the Vols’ loss to Loyola-Chicago on Saturday night, but it’s true. And it’s a season that should be celebrated.
Before that happens, there’s no denying that Saturday’s loss was disappointing. All the No. 3 seed Vols had to do to reach the Sweet 16 was get past No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago. A friendly bounce on Clayton Custer’s shot with 3.6 seconds remaining helped make sure that wouldn’t happen for Tennessee.
A win on Saturday would have sent the Vols to the Sweet 16 against No. 7 seed Nevada, which upset Cincinnati on Sunday, with a chance to likely play Kentucky for a fourth time this season in the Elite Eight.
Tennessee’s players were understandably crushed after Saturday’s game.
“We weren’t supposed to just finish here,” an emotional Jordan Bone said after the loss.
Bone felt that way because of the work he and his teammates had put in before and during the season. That work had paid off until Saturday.
Think about some of Tennessee’s accomplishments this season: a share of the regular season SEC championship, the 10th in school history; 25 wins, the fourth most in school history; regular season sweeps of rivals Kentucky and Vanderbilt; SEC Coach of the Year honors for Rick Barnes; SEC Player of the Year honors for Grant Williams.
Tennessee’s season became even more fun for fans because of the surprise factor.
Tennessee was picked by the media to finish 13th in the SEC this year. The Vols’ success provided an unexpected joy ride for Tennessee fans, something they could use considering the state of Tennessee athletics.
Tennessee’s upset of Purdue in the Bahamas came three days before Tennessee’s football team wrapped up its first winless season in the SEC in school history. As Tennessee’s football program hit its lowest point, the basketball team made a sudden charge.
Tennessee’s basketball team was able to climb into the Top 25 of the polls for the first time since 2010 while the school went through an embarrassing football coaching search (and everything else that went with it).
Tennessee basketball provided a distraction from the disturbance of Tennessee athletics.
The Vols gave fans plenty of reasons to fall in love with this team. They played hard; they played as a team; they didn’t have any stars, at least not at first; and they won.
“We have to keep playing like men,” forward Admiral Schofield would say during the season.
Tennessee’s team acted like a group of men, too. Members of the media will tell you they’re disappointed to see the Vols’ season end because it was a team worth covering.
Consider what former Vol Dane Bradshaw, now an analyst with the SEC Network, tweeted following Tennessee’s loss on Saturday:
“Heartbreaking finish but ‘17–18 Vols will go down as one of the all time favorite/most likable/best UT basketball underdog stories in program history…with almost everyone coming back. Thanks for an incredible year.”
That provides perhaps the final takeaway: what was a fun and successful season could turn into even more next year.
That’s always easier said than done. The underdog Vols will be mentioned among the preseason favorites when they return next year. Expectations will be higher, which will lead to more pressure and, if things don’t go well at times, added scrutiny
Still, what got Tennessee to this point — team leadership and player development — is what should lead to confidence that the Vols can take the program to a higher level next season.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, all but one,” Barnes said Saturday. “If they can use it as a catalyst to want to get back here and try to go deeper and further, it can be a good thing.”
That’s something that would be worth celebrating.