Five months ago Josiah-Jordan James sat at a table in Pratt Pavilion previewing his senior season. James was hopeful for what the 2022-23 Tennessee team could accomplish but couldn’t help but look in the rearview mirror.
Thoughts of what could have been and the bitter taste Tennessee’s 76-68 defeat against Michigan in the Round of 32 left.
“We definitely didn’t move on,” James said on that October afternoon. “There’s definitely a lot of unfinished business. We haven’t made it out of the first weekend in March, so that’s something that we definitely have to accomplish this year.”
Much has changed since that day for both James and the Tennessee basketball team. James missed 12 games throughout the season with a pair of injuries. Injuries proved a common theme for Tennessee this season and the Vols faltered down the final six weeks of the season and failed to reach their regular season goals.
Despite those disappointments, Tennessee is back in the exact same spot a year later. The four-seed Vols will face five-seed Duke in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament Saturday afternoon with the chance to go to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019. No one on Tennessee’s roster was on that team.
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While the loss to Michigan is no longer fresh in the Vols’ mind, its residual effects are all over this Tennessee team.
“It’s driven us a whole lot,” James said of the Michigan loss Friday. “We were able to get a taste of it with the victory at Longwood. We were excited, we were happy, and then a couple days later we played a really tough Michigan team, and we just remember that feeling of the defeat, the hurt and the pain that we had. It’s really fueled us to get to this point.
We know that we’re going to have to go into a dogfight less than 24 hours from now to not have that feeling. We’ve just got to play together and play our game.”
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes felt the pain of last season’s loss to Michigan too. The 68-year old only has so many NCAA Tournament runs left in him and the 2021-22 Tennessee team appeared poised to make a deep run, entering the NCAA Tournament on a tear.
“I knew that the devastation was there because they wanted to keep playing,” Barnes said. “But I think they also learned … how it’s hard, it’s really hard to win.”
That’s the beauty and the pain in the NCAA Tournament. Last year’s Tennessee team accomplished a lot and did so much well only to have a bitter taste left in its mouth after a Round of 32 exit.
Duke was struggling entering the NCAA Tournament a season ago before Mike Krzyzewski led the Blue Devils to the Final Four in his final season coaching.
The roles are reversed this time. Duke is the red-hot team poised to make a deep run while it’s been a disappointing winter for Tennessee. But the Vols can erase much of that poor taste by avenging last season’s loss to Michigan and knocking off the Blue Devils Saturday afternoon.
Barnes doesn’t believe Duke’s pedigree will phase his team and believes his group will be ready to roll as this group of Vols look to make their first Sweet 16.
“I think our guys have a great deal of respect for what they do, their work, and what they put in year-round to know that they belong wherever they play.”