Vols’ Basketball Season is Disappointing but Far from a Failure

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    Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI

    Tennessee’s promising basketball season hit its biggest speed bump of the year on Wednesday night when Vanderbilt handed the Vols’ a 67-56 loss in Knoxville. The Vols had arguably their worst offensive performance of the season in the game, and Vanderbilt likely took Tennessee’s spot on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

    But even though the Vols may be effectively eliminated from the NCAA Tournament with that loss, the season itself is far from a failure.

    First of all, the Vols’ NCAA Tournament hopes aren’t completely dashed. Tennessee faces a major uphill climb if they want to make it there considering they already have 13 losses with three regular season games and at least one SEC Tournament game remaining. But making the Big Dance is still within Tennessee’s grasp, if only just barely.

    Even if the Vols don’t make the NCAA Tournament (which is highly likely), this season is far from a failure for this young Tennessee squad.

    Coming into Rick Barnes’ second season as Tennessee’s head coach, many Vol fans had little to no expectations for this year. The Vols were picked to finish 13th in the SEC this season by the SEC media. Only Missouri was expected to have a worse conference season than Tennessee by the media at the beginning of the year. And even with this loss to Vanderbilt, the Vols sit at No. 8 in the SEC and could still finish in the top half of the conference depending on how the last few games of the regular season play out.

    Before the season started, many Vol fans thought hoping for a bid to the NIT was a lofty goal for this team. Keep in mind Rick Barnes’ first Tennessee team went 15-19 and his second team was much younger and much smaller than that one. Tennessee didn’t make it to any postseason tournament last season, and most didn’t expect them to make a major run at one this season either.

    Now here the Vols sit in late February with a minuscule chance of making the NCAA Tournament and a strong chance of making the NIT.

    Should making the NIT be the expectation year in and year out for the Vols? Not at all. The Vols have made 20 NCAA Tournament appearances over the last 50 years, and they’ve made it to 11 NCAA Tournaments over the last 20 years. Making it to the field of 68 for the Big Dance should be the goal of every Tennessee basketball season. But considering the expectations, roster attrition, and overall makeup of this team, making it to the NIT this season is nothing to scoff at.

    The Vols only have one player on the roster who is listed as taller than 6-foot-7, and that’s Kyle Alexander. Lew Evans is listed at 6-foot-7, and so is John Fulkerson, a player the Vols have had to play without since mid-December. Detrick Mostella was the Vols’ second-leading scorer before he was kicked off the team in early January. So the Vols have played a large portion of their season without one of their more prolific scorers and one of their taller players.

    And the Vols have still managed to hang around NCAA Tournament talk despite all that.

    Is it fine for Vol fans to feel disappointment that the season has gone the way it has? Especially after a promising start that at one point saw the Vols defeat Kentucky in the middle of a four-game winning streak? Yes, that makes sense. But it doesn’t mean this season has been a failure by any means.

    Making the NIT isn’t the goal at Tennessee. But given the odds this team faced before and during the season, it’s an acceptable consolation prize for this year. Next season, however, won’t be the same story.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.