Have Vols Peaked Early? History Says “No”

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    Photo credit: Anne Newman/RTI

    Tennessee’s men’s basketball was rolling just a few weeks ago. The Vols went up to Lexington and got their first win in Rupp Arena since 2006 with a 61-59 victory over Kentucky. That win was Tennessee’s sixth straight win and their ninth victory in their last 10 games.

    But since that victory, the Vols haven’t looked anything like the same team that won all those games over the last week of play.

    The Vols have dropped two of their last three games and have looked bad in doing so. Even Tennessee’s win over Kentucky was an ugly game, but the Vols found a way to win it. Since that win, however, Tennessee has been blown out by 28 points on the road against Alabama, struggled to beat a sub-par South Carolina team at home, then traveled to Georgia and lost by 11 to a mediocre Bulldog team.

    Most Vol fans aren’t hitting the panic button right now. But many are questioning whether or not this team peaked too early and have already played their best basketball.

    I’m here to tell you that history says that may not be the case.

    The two most successful teams the Vols have had over the last decade had rough patches in the month of February. Cuonzo Martin’s last team went 2-4 from February 5th through the 22nd and averaged just 65.3 points per game for those six contests. That team went from 14-7 overall to 16-11 and in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether.

    But that team managed to salvage together enough wins in the end to sneak in to the Big Dance in one of the play-in games. Then they went on a run and made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

    Even Tennessee’s most successful tournament team struggled for a stretch in the month of February. The 2009-10 Vols went 2-3 from February 9th through the 23rd and managed only 65.4 points per game in that span. Yet that team made it to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament then made the first and only Elite Eight appearance in program history in the NCAA Tournament.

    The Vols this season have very closely mirrored that 2009-10 Vols team. Tennessee’s current record at 19-7 isn’t far off from the 20-6 mark that team had at this point, and that team also played Purdue early in the season and ended up defeating No. 1 Kansas. This year’s team defeated a Purdue team that looks destined to be a No. 1 seed and played tough against another potential No. 1 seed in Villanova and highly-ranked North Carolina.

    If that Vol squad struggled at points in February, then surely that’s reason enough to not panic now, right?

    Even if that leaves you unconvinced, then look at last year’s South Carolina team. The Gamecocks were 19-4 after defeating Georgia on February 4th and looked destined to win the SEC outright. But then they proceeded to lose six of their last nine games and entered the NCAA Tournament as one of the coldest teams in the field.

    But that South Carolina team found a way to take down No. 2 seed Duke, No. 3 seed Baylor, and No. 4 seed Florida on their way to a Final Four appearance. And they only lost by four points to No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

    In fact, success in February doesn’t always lead to success in March. Take the 2007-08 Vols for example.

    That Vol squad ended up with the best pre-NCAA Tournament record in Tennessee history, winning 29 of their 33 games and briefly sitting atop the college basketball world after defeating No. 1 Memphis. That Vol team went 7-1 in February and averaged 77.6 points per game in those eight games. They did enough to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

    But what happened after that? The Vols were bounced in the Sweet Sixteen by 19 points by No. 3 seed Louisville. All that promise ended much earlier than most fans expected and wanted.

    Even Tennessee’s 2006-07 team that made it to the Sweet Sixteen before losing by one point to Ohio State had struggles in a critical stretch during the season. From January 10th through February 3rd of 2007, the Vols went just 2-6 and averaged 72.1 points in those eight games. Tennessee looked primed for a huge season when they started out 13-2, but then they stumbled all the way to 15-8 after losing 94-78 to No. 1 Florida on February 3rd.

    But even that team found a way to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, and they finished excruciatingly close to making it to the Elite Eight that season.

    Has the Vols’ bad play of late been concerning? Yes, and there’s plenty this team needs to fix before tournament time comes. But history has shown that bad stretches in February don’t always mean you’ve peaked early.

    Just get to the tournament and see what happens.