Some of the final numbers Tennessee basketball put up didn’t indicate a team on the rise.
The Vols, after all, finished the season 1-4 in their final five games and 2-6 in their final eight. Four of the final eight games could be considered blowout losses including two of the largest margins of defeat on the season (27 at South Carolina and 25 at Kentucky). Perhaps the most concerning moment was the 10-point loss to LSU, a team that was riding a 15-game losing streak coming into that contest.
There wasn’t a ton to love about Tennessee’s finish to the season. Head coach Rick Barnes has admitted it, players have said it and the reality is that the Vols, after hanging onto the NCAA tournament bubble into early February, will now come home after the SEC Tournament with no NCAA or NIT berth on the horizon.
That doesn’t mean 2016-17 was a step in the wrong direction, however.
Coming off a 15-19 (6-12 SEC) season in Barnes’ first year in Knoxville, the Vols were picked to finish 13th in the league in 2016-17. Set to face one of the tougher schedules in the nation with one of the youngest rosters, a repeat of last year would’ve been understandable.
Instead, this team showed that it can play at an NCAA tournament caliber. It just couldn’t finish and sustain it.
That was shown starting in Maui when the Vols battled a pair of Top 25 squads – Wisconsin and Oregon – down to the final minutes, even taking the Ducks into overtime before falling. It was shown again when the Vols went to North Carolina in December, held the lead for a majority of the afternoon and then fell just short.
And it was perhaps shown the most when the Vols pulled off four straight wins against Mississippi State, Kentucky, Kansas State and Auburn in late January – putting the Vols in the almost unthinkable spot of being a legitimate tournament contender at that point.
Then the Vols began to fade. As Barnes put it last week, it wasn’t necessarily that they regressed, they just didn’t elevate their game to a tournament level the ways opponents such as Vanderbilt did down the stretch. Several frustrating games later, the Vols found themselves as a No. 9 seed in Nashville and bounced after one game.
That, understandably, leaves some fans a bit frustrated and unsure about the direction of the program going forward. And while the finish certainly deserves some scrutiny, it also isn’t the biggest story of the season.
The story was in the progress – the development of a group of largely unheralded recruits such as Grant Williams, Jordan Bowden, John Fulkerson (pre-injury) and others who showed that they can be exactly what Barnes was looking for – a nucleus that he can build around in the coming years. Barnes’ recruiting also can be scrutinized since he arrived in Knoxville, but for whatever questions there might be about that, he showed that he can evaluate and develop.
And it looks like the star power is increasing. Recent commitment Yves Pons will be the highest-ranked player Barnes has signed in Knoxville, and the outlook for the 2018 and 2019 classes is even better with several highly-ranked prospects starting to give the Vols a bit more of a serious look.
So it’s fine to be disappointed about the finish to 2016-17. But it’s also important to recognize that a Tennessee program that looked to be on the verge of complete implosion following the 2014-15 season, also took a nice step in the right direction this year and has some pieces to build on.
It’s also fine to raise those expectations going forward. I’m not ready to say tournament-or-bust in 2017-18, but the Vols showed enough this year that the expectations can and should go up.
This team should have postseason aspirations next year, and that’s something Barnes is embracing.
“I hope there’s a whole lot more expectations starting next year,” Barnes said following the loss to Georgia on Thursday. “We needed a game — we threw a freshman and sophomore on the court, and it was from the fact you could have been in the locker room, you would see how heartbroken they were that that didn’t happen. That’s how quickly this ends. We’ll get together again and go back and evaluate everything that we’ve done this year. But we want expectations around our program. We should – again, that’s what we want and – but the fact is, so much for this group this year was a learning experience and they created some of those expectations.”
And despite the late failures, it’s fine for the fans to begin to raise the expectations as well.