The basketball Vols surprised almost everyone this year with their stellar play in the 2017-18 season. Everyone knows by this point that Tennessee was picked to finish second-to-last in the SEC before the season began. And everyone knows that the Vols not only surpassed those expectations, but they ended up winning a share of the SEC regular season title and made it to the SEC Tournament Final as well.
But all that hard work and good cheer came to an abrupt halt on Saturday night when the Vols lost a heartbreaking 63-62 contest to Loyola-Chicago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee’s season isn’t lessened by Saturday’s outcome. The loss is hard to swallow, and Vol fans won’t get over it any time soon. Nor should they; feel how you want and need to feel about this game for the foreseeable future. Losing on a last second shot always stings, and that’s especially true this year when Tennessee’s portion of the bracket was wide open and looked ripe for an Elite Eight or Final Four run.
But the loss doesn’t make what Tennessee did in the games leading up to that one any less significant.
The Vols’ 26 wins this season end up tied with the 1999-2000 team for the third-most in a single year in school history. Their 10-win improvement from last year to this year is tied for the biggest win improvement from one season to the next since Tennessee joined the SEC in 1932-33.
This team overachieved all season. And now they have to build off that and come back next season ready to be even better.
Unlike this last offseason, there will be considerable expectations for Tennessee’s basketball team heading into the season. The Vols won’t be the team sneaking up on people to start the year; the SEC media will likely pick the Vols to finish in the top five or even top three of the SEC in the preseason. Next year, the Vols will have the target on their backs. They will be the hunted.
There’s one of two ways next season can go for the Vols. Either they embrace that challenge, take this offseason to get stronger, wiser, and more efficient, or they crumble under the pressure and can’t adjust to being the favorites.
Tennessee thrived this year in an underdog role. Their slogan heading into the NCAA Tournament was “Don’t Pick Us.” That won’t work next season.
Rick Barnes did a masterful job coaching the team this season. The players were great in how they responded to that coaching and to adversity during the season. But this offseason will provide a different challenge. This offseason will be the most crucial one of Rick Barnes’ tenure at Tennessee.
Grant Williams needs to improve his defense and work on his jumper. Admiral Schofield needs to work on his interior game. Kyle Alexander needs to develop more post moves. Jordan Bone needs to gain more confidence in his jump shot and work on cutting to the basket more. Jordan Bowden needs to develop some more offensive weapons other than a corner three. And Tennessee’s role players have work to do as well.
If the Vols can add five-star Anfernee Simons to the roster or a talented grad transfer big man, next year’s team could be a force to be reckoned with. But even with a new addition like that, the season will come down to how the team as a whole responds to this heartbreaking loss and how they deal with no longer being the lovable underdog.
Next season, the Vols won’t sneak up on anybody. They need to learn lessons from this year, get better in the offseason, and come out ready to play.