In their first 24 games this season, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team lost one game. But over their last three games, the Vols have dropped two contests.
Now, Vol fans have begun to wonder if Tennessee peaked earlier in the season and if their poor play as of late means that the Vols’ run in the NCAA Tournament will be a short one. History shows, however, that late season struggles mean little to nothing when it comes to a team’s success in March.
I took a look back over the last 10 years to see how all the Final Four teams and NCAA Tournament Champions have fared in the months of February and March leading up to the Big Dance. And history revealed that almost every single team who has made it to the Final Four or won the national title hit a road bump (or several) en route to the NCAA Tournament.
Over the last decade, only four of the 40 teams that made it to at least the Final Four went undefeated in the months of February and March. And those four teams (2018 Loyola-Chicago, 2015 Kentucky, 2014 Florida, 2010 Butler) didn’t end up winning the championship.
Every single team that’s won a National Championship over the last four years has lost at least one game in either February or March. Last year, Villanova lost three games in the month of February. In 2017, North Carolina dropped two games in February and one in March. Back in 2014, Connecticut lost twice in February and twice in March.
Remember that UConn team that won the title in 2011? They lost three times in February and twice in March.
Of the last 40 teams that made it to the Final Four, 28 of them have lost multiple games in the months of February and March. One of the worst offenders came in 2017 with Frank Martin’s South Carolina squad. The Gamecocks lost six games in the last month and a half of the season (including the SEC Tournament), but they made it all the way to the Final Four in 2017.
Syracuse lost five games in February and March combined in 2016 and made it to the Final Four. That same year, Oklahoma lost four games in February and once in March and still made it to the Final Four.
Syracuse had an even worse run up to the NCAA Tournament in 2013 when they lost seven combined games in February and March. But they ended up making it to the Final Four that year, too. Two of the other Final Four teams that year also lost multiple games in those two months. Michigan (six losses) and Wichita State (five losses) all suffered numerous defeats over the last month and a half of the season before the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky, UConn, and Wisconsin all lost at least three games in February and March in 2014. Louisville and Ohio State dropped four games in February and March and made it to the Final Four in 2012. VCU lost five games in February and another in March before their Final Four run in 2011. UConn (five losses) and Kentucky (four losses) also lost several games in February and March before they made it to the Final Four that year.
One of Tennessee’s losses over the last week’s worth of games wasn’t even close, though. The Vols’ first loss since December came up in Lexington, Kentucky, and it came at the hands of a hungry Wildcat squad. Kentucky defeated the Vols by a score of 86-69, marking Tennessee’s first double-digit defeat since a 73-62 loss to Georgia on February 17th of last year.
Surely all these Final Four and championship teams didn’t suffer such blowout losses during their seasons, right?
Six of the last 10 NCAA Tournament Champions had at least one loss of 10 or more points during the regular season. In fact, the 2017 North Carolina squad that won the title suffered four double-digit losses during the 2016-17 season.
The 2015 Duke team and both of UConn’s title-winning teams in 2014 and 2011 all had three double-digit losses before entering the NCAA Tournament.
Most of the teams that made it to the Final Four had at least one blowout loss on their resume before tournament time, too. Only eight of the 40 Final Four teams over the last 10 years didn’t have a single double-digit loss in the regular season or conference tournament.
There’s no question that the Vols aren’t playing their best basketball right now. But all the issues plaguing this team are fixable, and this roster is comprised of a lot of experienced players. They also have a veteran coach who has won close to 700 games in his career. They can figure it out, and there’s still plenty of time to do so.
February and early March are all about getting ready and making sure your team has what it takes for gut-check time in mid-to-late March. Tennessee is still figuring that out. So were a lot of the teams at this point in the season that would go on to make it to the Final Four or even win the National Championship.
There isn’t one tried-and-true formula when it comes to having success in the NCAA Tournament. Recent history has shown that the vast majority of teams who make a deep tournament run didn’t have smooth sailing heading into the Big Dance. So there’s no need to hit the panic button just yet.