Take #11 Rutgers (+1) Against #11 Notre Dame
It’s been 363 days since the 2020-21 Tennessee Volunteers walked off the court a loser at what was then-Bankers Fieldhouse Arena and now-Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
After a tumultuous final six weeks of the season that COVID-19 greatly impacted, Tennessee’s season came to an end in thorough fashion as No. 12 seed Oregon State easily upset the Vols in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament.
Now, the Vols are back at the same arena in Indianapolis, looking to put the poor memories of 2021 behind.
“Yeah, when we got the report and the news, probably a little while after the Selection Show. I’m happy to be back,” Tennessee forward Josiah Jordan James said Wednesday. “I was excited that they put us back here. I think everything is coming full circle, and I’m glad we have a chance to redeem ourselves.”
James spoke to the media over Zoom following the 14-point loss to Oregon State last season, vowing to be a better leader moving forward. That growth was on display last weekend in Tampa and has Tennessee back in the same city as last March, this time with much fewer teams — the entire 2021 Tournament took place in Indiana — and as a higher overall seed.
While Tennessee is back in the same arena, a lot has changed since last season. COVID-19 limits severely impacted last year’s tournament and they’re no more.
Fans watched Tennessee practice at Gainbridge Fieldhouse this afternoon and tomorrow’s crowd will be far closer to the arena’s 17,923 capacity then it was last season when it more resembled a ghost town than big game basketball venue.
Tennessee’s John Fulkerson is the only Vol player that has participated in a normal NCAA Tournament game.
“I would say it’s so much fun to be around people, and I think the chemistry on the team is so much better because we get to spend a lot of time together,” Tennessee center Uros Plavsic said. “And just being around your teammates more, it makes you feel more comfortable around them on the court as well.
So I think that is biggest difference compared to COVID year when we played. I remember in this gym right here we were honestly like just warming up and waiting to get on the court, wear masks and all this stuff; and now, you know, it’s just so much difference, all the people are in front of you and stuff like this. So I think that would be the biggest difference.”
The togetherness of this Tennessee team is something Barnes, James and plenty of Vols discussed prior to the season. The COVID-19 limitations made it difficult for a blending 2021 team to stay connected as their play on the court began to slide.
That hasn’t been the case this season where Tennessee’s togetherness has been on display over the course of the season. That allowed the Vols to stay locked in and together when Tennessee struggled at the opening of SEC play.
Tennessee didn’t just learn from last year’s experiences, it’s helping them appreciate what they have this March.
“It’s a lot more exciting this year, just being able to be around your teammates,” James said. “Last year we were really — had to be in the hotel room, your individual hotel room for the majority of the day, besides team meetings and practices and stuff like that.
It’s just been exciting to be around your teammates. Like we went on a walk yesterday after we ate at a steakhouse. Just guys being able to hang out with each other and being in each other’s rooms in the presence of others has really made this a lot more exciting. I feel like last year, coming from last year, it made us not take this moment or this opportunity for granted. So I think we’re just trying to get the most out of it as a team.”
Tennessee opens up NCAA Tournament play at 2:45 p.m. ET against 14-seed Longwood. CBS is broadcasting the game.
If the Vols get past the Lancers, they’ll get the winner of the Colorado State and Michigan matchup.