Tennessee begins their 2018 NCAA Tournament journey on Thursday when they face off against Wright State at 12:40 PM Eastern time. For the Vols, Thursday will mark the first time this team has ever played in the NCAA Tournament and the first time Tennessee has been back to the Big Dance since 2014.
And it was a long and unexpected road to get there this season.
The Vols were coming off a 16-16 season before this one began back in early November. In fact, Tennessee had failed to have a season above .500 since 2013-14, Cuonzo Martin’s last year and the last time Tennessee had made it to the NCAA Tournament. The Vols had suffered through the Donnie Tyndall debacle and a rebuilding process under Rick Barnes over the last three years.
Tennessee was picked to finish 13th out of 14 SEC teams in the preseason by the SEC media. Some expected the young Vol squad, whose only scholarship senior was a graduate transfer, to make improvements from the previous season. But most expected more of the same, if not worse, from Tennessee in 2017-18.
But the young Vols proved those doubters wrong. And in a big way.
Tennessee currently holds a 25-8 record, a share of the regular season SEC title, and just fought Kentucky hard in the SEC Tournament Final. Those 25 wins are the fourth-most in school history, and the nine-game improvement the Vols have made in the win column from last season to this season is tied for the second-largest win improvement in program history.
Few people expected this team to do great things this season. And that’s just how the Vols like it.
The Vols have embraced the underdog role this season, and they’ve thrived in it. And now that the NCAA Tournament is about to start, they don’t want people to suddenly start loving on them. They want to be the team that slides under the radar still.
Tennessee’s players and head coach Rick Barnes did a video for The Players’ Tribune on Twitter in which they ask fans, media, and others filling out their brackets this year not to pick them.
“We got the tradition, we got the fans, and know we got the team,” says forward Kyle Alexander during the video. “But you didn’t pick us before, so why start now?”
You can watch the full video below and hear Tennessee’s message to those who doubted them all season long:
Don’t pick us.
— The Players’ Tribune (@PlayersTribune) March 14, 2018