KNOXVILLE – The pace of college basketball’s postseason doesn’t allow much opportunity for reflection.
A team like Tennessee, ambitious and forward thinking, literally marches double time through the month of March. On Monday, it was clear that the damage from an 84-64 loss to Auburn in the SEC tournament final had been combed and any pertinent evidence gathered. The Vols already were repacking and reloading for the next journey.
They move on to Columbus, Ohio, for a first-round NCAA tournament game against Colgate.
In the midst of this transition, forward Grant Williams, the two-time SEC player of the year, converted a question about a banner-less season to date into a moment of perspective.
“Just because two games didn’t go our way doesn’t mean this year wasn’t a success,” said Williams, referencing both Sunday’s loss and another loss at Auburn om March 9 that cost the Vols a chance to share the conference regular season championship.
“People always try to say that because there wasn’t a banner, you look back on a team and say that they didn’t accomplish what they should have,” Williams said. “I think we’ve done a lot this year. Not many teams get 29 wins in a season. Not many teams produce the talent through development the way that we have the last few years.”
The Vols marched their way into new territory last season with 26 victories and a share of the SEC regular season championship. It’s hallowed ground from where the program had been. But the footing gets trickier there and the stumbles are more pronounced.
Tennessee’s victories this season already amount to the second most for a season in program history. The Vols strung together 19 in a row along the way, rising to No. 1 in the national polls. Their 15-3 record in SEC regular season play was two victories better than last season. And their schedule had 13 games against NCAA teams. Nine of those games were crammed into the last three weeks.
In the end, a win on Sunday would’ve yielded not only a tournament championship but a No. 1 NCAA seed.
The Vols might be empty-handed in terms of trophies but they’ve never had this much hard-earned experience for the sport’s signature event.
“This team is more equipped because we guard and we can score many ways now,” Williams said. “We have a lot of players that have developed their games and are able to shoot the ball as well as go inside and finish over length.”
Williams also believes that the Vols are better equipped mentally for the moment.
“I know a year ago if you told us that we were going to win 19 games in a row and all of this stuff, we probably would have shut down or cracked under some pressure,” he said. “But I think now we’re mature and coach (Rick) Barnes has done a good job in developing us as people. We’ve learned how to deal with success and tough losses.”
Tennessee’s March fate likely rests with an ability to maintain its improved offense while also having a sufficient defensive presence. The Vols’ talented starting five will have to do its part to relieve the pressure on the reserves.
The team that already has done a lot is capable of doing even more.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org