Only the most optimistic Big Orange fan felt good about Tennessee’s chances with a precarious 75-74 edge and only 24 seconds remaining against Oklahoma State.
Never mind the Cowboys had never played in an NCAA game before Friday, or that statistics favor the defense in such end-of-game situations over 60 percent of the time.
There was really nothing from the recently deceased season that suggested anything good would happen for the Vols, and even if it did they wouldn’t be able to take.
FLASHBACK: in the SEC title game five days ago vs. Mississippi State, the Vols missed a free throw with a chance to tie the game and 11 seconds left, followed by consecutive turnovers under their own basket without getting the ball in play. A half-court heave by Cameron Tatum banged off the glass and iron. Lost was an opportunity to win Tennessee’s first SEC Tournament championship in 30 years.
FLASHBACK: Sunday, March 8, in the regular season finale in Knoxville, Tennessee came back to tie the game in the closing seconds, only to see Alabama’s Anthony Brock bank home a shot from 30 feet under heavy defensive pressure for a 70-67 upset over the Vols. The loss cost Tennessee sole possession of the SEC East title and ended a three-game winning streak, the longest since UT reeled off five wins to start the season.
FLASHBACK: Saturday, Feb. 7 at Auburn the Vols failed to hold a late lead as Korvotney Barber, who hit 8-of-8 from the field on the day, dropped in a layup with four seconds remaining to give the Tigers a 78-77 victory. The Tigers entered the game with a 2-5 mark in the conference. The defeat came in the middle of a couple of two-game win streaks and prevented the Vols from building momentum.
FLASHBACK: Saturday, Jan. 9, Tennessee trails Memphis in Knoxville, 54-53, but had the ball with 20.1 seconds left. Tyler Smith got off an awkward shot in the lane that fell off the front rim, the Tigers won for the subsequent scramble for the ball and UT was forced to foul with 4.6 left in the game. Since the Vols weren’t over the limit they had to foul again with 3.4 seconds left and again at the 1.9 mark. Evans made the front end but missed the second. UT got the rebound and called time-out with 1.1 second. Josh Tabb got a shot off before the buzzer but didn’t draw iron, as Memphis came away with a 55-53 win. Three days later the Vols lost another close home game to LSU 76-70.
The last dance against Oklahoma State was more of the same. The Vols have the lead and only have to prevent a basket to force a tough shot. Instead the defense got lost on a ball screen and the lane to the basket opened like Moses parting the Red Sea. Smith arrived too late to prevent the basket but just in time to add a foul shot that turned it from a one-point deficit into a two-point deficit. He managed to get a shot off at the end of the game that hit the front rim before bouncing away.
The Vols did manage to win a couple of two-point contests against Belmont and Arkansas, but in each of games dodged a bullet at the buzzer. In short it wasn’t a team that appeared confident in closing moments of tight contests. Whether that was because the team lacked a true point guard who was capable of breaking down a defense or shutting down the dribble is hard to say. Bobby Maze played better against OSU (five assists, no turnovers) but didn’t often have the ball in his hands down the stretch.
Overall the Vols had individuals make progress over the season, but overall it was difficult to see that the team did. It’s notable that after losing to Kentucky by 19 in Knoxville the Vols lost to the Wildcats in Lexington by 18. After losing to Gonzaga on a neutral court by 10 points the Vols lost to the Zags in Knoxville by nine. That was as close as UT ever came to consistency on the season. After starting the season 9-2, the Volunteers were 12-11 the rest of the way.
It was a team vulnerable to big athletic fronts, as well as quick backcourts. It generally played hard but, as is the often the case with teams relying on young players in key roles, it would sometimes lose focus. Bruce Pearl’s trademark pressure defense never resembled his first three editions at UT. Ultimately the loss of JaJuan Smith may have hurt the Vols as much if not more than losing Chris Lofton.
On balance it’s worth remembering that not so long ago a 21-win season, SEC East Division crown, tournament title game appearance and a ticket punched for the Big Dance would have been considered a towering achievement for UT men’s basketball.