Tennessee’s run in the NCAA Tournament this season was cut short thanks to this year’s Cinderella team, Loyola-Chicago, nailing a last second shot to propel them past the Vols in the second round. Loyola is now in the Final Four, and the Vols are back in Knoxville licking their wounds after an otherwise stellar season.
For Vol fans, this year’s defeat was brutal for various reasons. The Vols’ region, the South region, opened up big time and provided Tennessee with possibly their best chance of making a Final Four ever. No. 1 seed Virginia became the first one-seed to lose in the first round, No. 4 seed Arizona was bounced in the first round, and No. 2 seed Cincinnati was beaten in the second round. The Vols were tossed out in the second round as well, and many Vol fans are left with the all-too-familiar question of “What if?” after this season.
Another reason Vol fans were left with such despair and anger after the loss was because making the NCAA Tournament hasn’t exactly been commonplace for Tennessee.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the Vols have made the tournament just 13 times including this season. That means they’ve missed the tournament 21 times in that span. All in all, the Vols have only made the tournament 21 times in program history. Western Kentucky (22) has more appearances in the NCAA Tournament as a program than Tennessee.
The Vols have had relative success when they’ve actually made it to the tournament, though. Of those 21 berths, they’ve made it to the Sweet 16 seven times. They’ve won at least one game 13 times in their 21 appearances.
But Tennessee only has one Elite Eight appearance in school history. Loyola, the team that beat the Vols this year, made their second Elite Eight appearance this year when they advanced to that round.
So what’s the key for the Vols to make deeper NCAA Tournament runs? Just make it there more often.
Tennessee is a program that shouldn’t be going three, four, or five years without making the NCAA Tournament. The Vols shouldn’t have prolonged droughts in the tournament. And if they can get there more consistently, they stand a better chance of making it deeper in the tournament.
I took a look at teams who make the tournament seemingly every year and compared them to teams who make it about as often as the Vols do. And the results are pretty much what you would expect.
For the teams who have earned 30 or more bids to the NCAA Tournament in their program’s history (22 teams), they’ve made it to at least the Sweet Sixteen 53.8 percent of the time. Kentucky leads all those teams by making it to the Sweet Sixteen 75.4 percent of the time, and that counts this season.
But what about the teams in Tennessee’s range?
Of the teams who have earned between 19 and 29 bids to the tournament (34 teams), they’ve only made it to the Sweet Sixteen 35.7 percent. Michigan leads this grouping by making it that far in the tournament 58.3 percent of the time.
There are a couple takeaways from this data. The first is that the “blue blood” programs have definitely dominated the NCAA Tournament throughout the years. UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, UConn, Kansas, Louisville, Villanova, and Michigan State have won 61.5 percent of the national championships and make it to at least the Sweet Sixteen more often than not.
Another takeaway is that usually the more often you make it to the tournament, the more often you’ll make deep runs.
Tennessee is viewed traditionally as a football school who doesn’t put as much attention or money into basketball. That perception (and reality) has changed a bit over the years, but the Vols still aren’t respected in hoops like they are in football. And it’s not even close.
But there are a few big time programs the Vols can look to as examples that show “football schools” can have major success in the NCAA Tournament.
Texas hasn’t had the success in the NCAA Tournament you might expect, but they’ve still had more than Tennessee. The Longhorns have made it to the tournament 34 times and have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen 10 times. They’ve made it on to the Elite Eight seven times and have made it to the Final Four three times.
Oklahoma has made the Big Dance 31 times, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen 10 times, and has made nine Elite Eight appearances. They’ve even made it to the Final Four five times and the finals twice.
When you boil down Tennessee’s numbers compared to those two schools, the Vols actually match up favorably at first. Texas has made it to the Sweet Sixteen 29.4 percent of the time and Oklahoma has made it that far 32.3 percent of the time. The Vols have made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 33.3 percent of their 21 appearances.
The biggest difference? Both Texas and Oklahoma have made it to the tournament with greater consistency than Tennessee and have had more opportunities to make it further. And they’ve been able to take advantage of those opportunities.
Michigan is another school the Vols can look to, and it’s a school Tennessee often gets compared to in football especially. The Wolverines only have 24 NCAA Tournament appearances, only three more than Tennessee.
But Michigan has had much more success than the Vols in their appearances, making it to the Sweet Sixteen 14 times, the Elite Eight 13 times, and the Final Four six times.
Michigan should prove to Vol fans that it can be done at Tennessee. The Wolverines are a football powerhouse, yet their basketball team doesn’t hide in their shadow. The Vols’ basketball team need look no further than the Maize and Blue of Michigan to see that a “football school” can have success in basketball too.
The Vols finally made it back to the NCAA Tournament this season, their first appearance there in four years. But if they want to ever make history and get to the Final Four or even just get back to the Elite Eight, they need to stop having droughts and make it to the tournament with more regularity.