Tennessee's men have been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. It may be considered an upset because Florida Atlantic was seeded ninth, while the Vols were a four seed. It wasn't really an upset to me and the fact that Tennessee lost to the Owls was anything but surprising. The same old things that have bugged the Volunteers all season long turned up again against FAU....mainly a 16-2 run by the Owls midway through the second half that erased a six point Tennessee lead and put FAU ahead for good. Even though the Vols started out like gangbusters, they couldn't maintain that intensity. All day long I had a bad feeling about the game and rightly so.
Not to take away from the Vols' season because 25 wins with the tough schedule they faced was impressive. In fact, Tennessee scored wins over Texas, Kansas and Alabama during the regular season....all wins over one or two seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Some Big Orange fans have stated the loss of starting point guard Zachei Zeigler led to the Vols' demise and they could be right. If Zeigler had been in the lineup against FAU, the outcome could have been different but we'll never know for sure.
Coach Rick Barnes has a huge rebuilding job ahead of him before next season begins. Tennessee graduates five seniors, four of which started against the Owls. And if Coach Barnes wants to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2024, he'd better find some shooters. I'm sure the Vols' coaching staff is already sorting through names in the transfer portal, looking for a couple of shooting guards as well as a couple of inside scoring threats.
Tennessee does have a couple of four star players who redshirted this year but will be untested when next season begins. Another top notch recruiting class is needed for Coach Barnes and he has one locked up. The Vols have the 8th ranked class in the nation for 2023 and they're in the mix for former Boyd Buchanan stand out Ace Bailey in 2024. There is nothing wrong with the talent in Knoxville. Defense has been the strong point for Tennessee since Barnes took over eight years ago and that's not going to change. While it appears the Vols will be headed for a rebuilding chore in 2024, they could be very, very good once again.
Tennessee has never had a team make the final four in the NCAA Tournament. They've had one to make the Elite Eight and that was in 2010 under Bruce Pearl. Coach Rick Barnes isn't getting any younger....he will be 69 in July and I would love to see him finally get a chance to play for a national championship. He's been really good for Tennessee and I believe the Vols have been good for him and I can see a Final Four appearance or better for Tennessee basketball in the near future.
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Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org