The Vols’ Basketball History is Better Than You Might Think

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    Tennessee isn’t known as a basketball school. At least, not a men’s basketball school. The Lady Vols put women’s collegiate basketball on the map, and they’re one of the two best programs in their sport.

    Tennessee’s men’s hoops, on the other hand, isn’t viewed nearly the same way. And for good reason.

    Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Tennessee has missed the tournament more often than they’ve earned a berth. The Vols have made it to the NCAA Tournament just 14 times over the last 35 years, meaning they’ve failed to reach the Big Dance 21 times.

    UT’s overall body of work isn’t impressive in men’s hoops when it comes to postseason accomplishments, but when you look at what the Vols have been able to do the last 20 years, it puts a whole new perspective on the men’s program.

    From 1985 to 1999, Tennessee made the NCAA Tournament just three times total, and they won a total of one game in the tournament in those three appearances.

    Since 2000, however, Tennessee is among some select company with their tournament success.

    Over the last 20 NCAA Tournaments, the Vols have earned a berth 11 times. That’s still not a great ratio, but they’ve made their trips to the Big Dance count. Tennessee has made it to at least the Sweet Sixteen in six of those 11 appearances in the NCAA Tournament. In that same span, 88 other men’s basketball teams have made it to at least one Sweet Sixteen. But of those 88 other teams only 15 have made it to more Sweet Sixteens than the Vols, and three teams have made it to the same amount as UT. Most of those 18 schools are blue bloods like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Michigan State or are perceived as high profile basketball schools like Syracuse, UCLA, Gonzaga, Arizona, UConn, Villanova, and Louisville.

    What that data says, however, is that the Vols have made it to more Sweet Sixteens in the past 20 years than 71 other programs that have made it to the Round of 16 at least once. And UT has made it that far more often than some highly thought of schools.

    The Vols have made it to more Sweet Sixteens over the last 20 seasons than schools like Notre Dame, Texas, Pittsburgh, Butler, Marquette, Stanford, Maryland, Georgetown, Indiana, Memphis, Ohio State, and Michigan. In the SEC, only Kentucky (12) and Florida (8) have made more Sweet Sixteen appearances than Tennessee over the last 20 years.

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    Of the 18 programs that have made it to at least six Sweet Sixteens over the last 20 years, Tennessee is the only one to do so with four different head coaches. Jerry Green, Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin, and Rick Barnes have all gotten UT to at least the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament at least once over the last two decades.

    Sustained success has eluded Tennessee in men’s basketball for a while, but the fact that four different head coaches have gotten the Vols to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament shows the potential that UT has in men’s hoops.

    Of course, the biggest difference between the Vols and most of the other teams that have made numerous Sweet Sixteen appearances over the last two decades is that Tennessee usually doesn’t get much further than that. The Vols have just one Elite Eight appearance to go along with their six Sweet Sixteens, and they have no Final Four appearances.

    Schools like George Mason, Loyola-Chicago, and South Carolina have all made it to just one Sweet Sixteen the past 20 years, but they also ended up advancing to the Final Four in that one appearance.

    Until Tennessee can start cashing in on their opportunities and make it to at least one Final Four, they won’t be thought of as more than a football school with an occasionally good men’s basketball program. Tennessee has the potential to be more than that, though.

    This is a program that’s made it to more Sweet Sixteens than other “basketball schools” and has had seven seasons of 24 or more wins in the last 20 years. It’s a school that’s set to have anywhere between five to eight players on NBA rosters later this year as well.

    The University of Tennessee isn’t a basketball school and won’t be any time soon. But Tennessee’s recent basketball history is better than many probably think, and there’s potential to make the future even better.

    Here’s the full list of the other 18 teams with at least six Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2000:

    Duke – 15
    Kansas – 13
    Kentucky -12
    Michigan State -12
    North Carolina – 11
    Arizona – 10
    Wisconsin – 10
    Gonzaga – 9
    Syracuse – 9
    UCLA – 9
    Florida – 8
    Louisville – 7
    UConn – 7
    West Virginia – 7
    Xavier – 7
    Oregon – 6
    Purdue – 6
    Vilanova – 6

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.