Tennessee has never made it to the Final Four in their 20 previous NCAA Tournament appearances. The Vols have only made it to one Elite Eight since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and that was back in 2010.
But thanks to a crazy first couple days of the NCAA Tournament, the Vols may have an opportunity like they’ve never seen here in their 21st appearance in the tournament.
The Vols have gotten tantalizingly close to making it to the Final Four before. The one time they advanced to the Elite Eight, Tennessee fell in a close contest to Michigan State as they tried to make it to the Final Four. The Vols led the Spartans 41-39 at halftime and were beating them in almost every facet of the game.
But ultimately Michigan State proved to be just a little better.
Tennessee fought back after enduring a 14-1 Spartan run and ended up tying the game at 69-all with under a minute to go. Scotty Hopson had a chance to give the Vols a one-point lead, but he only made one of his two free throws and only ended up tying the game.
Then a defensive collapsed doomed the Vols.
Michigan State corralled Hopson’s missed second free throw, and Draymond Green rifled a pass to a wide open Raymar Morgan in the paint, and Tennessee fouled him as he went up for the shot. Morgan hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, and Tennessee got the ball and called timeout with 1.6 seconds left.
J.P. Prince got the inbounds pass, heaved up a half court shot, and the Vols’ hopes of making it to the Final Four came crashing down as the ball failed to even draw iron.
Tennessee hasn’t gotten that close to the Final Four since. But this year presents them with an incredible chance.
The Vols have the perfect opportunity to make history this season. This team has been all about defying the odds this year already. The media picked the Vols to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC, and few outside of Tennessee’s own fan base and local media expected them to improve from a 16-16 season last year.
Fast forward to now, and this Vol squad is tied for the third-most wins in a single season in program history, and they own a share of the SEC regular season title and made it to the SEC Tournament finals as well. And now they’re a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee is in the South region of this year’s bracket, and that region has been historically insane so far. UMBC pulled off the first ever 16-seed upset over a 1-seed when they dominated Virginia 74-54. No. 4 seed Arizona got upset in similar blowout fashion by 13-seed Buffalo, 89-68, and the Vols’ opponent on Saturday, Loyola-Chicago, is an 11-seed who used a buzzer beater to upset No. 6 seed Miami.
Never before has a bracket seen such upheaval. And that has opened up Tennessee’s path to history.
The Vols can’t get too caught up in “what ifs” right now, though. And I don’t expect the team to do that. Rick Barnes has been around the block a couple dozen times, and I don’t imagine he’ll let his team get distracted from their opponent on Saturday. Loyola-Chicago presents plenty of tough match-ups and plays very good team ball.
But that doesn’t mean fans can’t take a look ahead and think about the history on the line in the coming days.
No. 2 seed Cincinnati is still alive in Tennessee’s portion of the South region. And now the Bearcats are the top seed in the region. But Cincinnati is largely viewed as the weakest No. 2 seed considering they were put in the same region as the top overall seed, Virginia. And Tennessee doesn’t match up too poorly with the Bearcats either.
Tennessee went from arguably having the easier draw in their portion of the South region to suddenly looking like they might have the toughest part of the region now. But with the way things have gone so far in the tournament, don’t count out those other double-digit seeds in the top part of the region. No. 5 seed Kentucky can’t just waltz their way to the Elite Eight like many are saying.
And on that same note, the Vols must be careful not to overlook the double-digit seed they face on Saturday.
Tennessee’s path to the Elite Eight and ultimately the Final Four won’t be easy. But it looks much more manageable now.