Wiedmer: These Vols Look Built For A Deep March Run

  • Sunday, March 3, 2024
  • Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer

It’s March?

How can that be? Wasn’t it just last week my daughters and I were putting out reindeer food for Rudolph and the boys? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were all trying to hit the over/under on how many times the CBS cameras would focus on Taylor Swift at the Super Bowl? (According to Sports Business Journal, she was shown “about a dozen times.”)

Yet the calendar indeed says March, which means it’s almost time for the greatest 20 days in America team sports _ the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Actually, for those of you who fill out brackets _ the Statista Research Department estimates 56.3 million Americans completed at least one in 2023, up from 36.1 million in 2022 _ the tourney begins two weeks from today (Sunday) when the brackets for the 68-team field are announced.

A lot of these are for office pools, but the ESPN Bracket Challenge _ the most popular online bracket competition _ accounts for over 20 million participants.

According to the site, at the height of people registering, they’re being submitted at a rate of 26,000 per minute. And to date, there’s never been a single perfect bracket.

But it is a near-perfect sporting event, filled with upsets and underdogs and moments to remember forever. Duke’s Christian Laettner beating Kentucky in the East Regional final in 1992 in what many have labeled “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” A freshman Michael Jordan’s game-winner over Georgetown in the 1982 title game.. Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer for Villanova over North Carolina in the 2016 title game. The storybook Final Four runs of George Mason (2006), Butler (2010 and 2011), Virginia Commonwealth (2010) and Florida Atlantic a year ago.

This is what makes it must-see viewing, even if whoever becomes this year’s Cinderella story is filled with guys who were starring somewhere else a year ago, the transfer portal giving and taking with not so equal outcomes.

As I began this column on Saturday, I was sitting in Rupp Arena, watching Kentucky’s freshman-centric team struggle with an Arkansas squad that features 10 transfer players, including Khalif Battle, who started at Butler, transferred to Temple and is now a grad transfer at Arkansas, where he supposedly has two seasons of eligibility left. Against Kentucky, which has two transfers on the roster _ leading scorer Antonio Reeves (Illinois State) and Tre Mitchell (West Virginia) _ Battle scored a game-best 34 points and hit 17 of 18 free throws, which was a Rupp Arena record.

Arkansas isn’t going to reach the NCAA tourney unless it wins the SEC Tournament in two weeks in Nashville, but some team with a transfer who resembles Battle’s skills will make a lot of noise during March Madnesst. Someone like Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht, for instance, who transferred in from Northern Colorado over the summer.

Knecht is almost assuredly the SEC’s Player of the Year after outscoring Auburn 25-21 all by himself over the final 12 minutes of UT’s thrilling 92-84 win against the Tigers and former Vols coach Bruce Pearl last week.

Knecht has NBA range, and then some, on his 3-ball, displays mad hops near the rim, and has improved his defense and passing skills noticeably since the start of the season. If it weren’t for Purdue’s 7-4 Zach Edey, Knecht might even win the Wooden Award, which is college hoops’ version of the Heisman.

As Pearl noted after his loss to the Vols in praising Knecht, “Tennessee normally wins when everybody’s involved on offense. Knecht dispelled that tonight.”

But Pearl’s right that UT is normally exceptionally balanced and blessed with largely home-grown talent. Knecht may be a transfer, but point guard Zakai Zeigler, wing Josiah-Jordan James and guard Santiago Vescovi have seemingly been around since President Obama was in office.

Or as Rick Barnes said on Saturday night after his team went into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and stunned Alabama 81-74 in a come-from-behind win that all but clinched the SEC regular-season title: “We’ve got a lot of these guys that have been with us for a long time and they’ve been in games like this.”

Added losing coach Nate Oats: “They’re a tough, veteran team. They had guys step up and make big shots.”

This is why these Vols were everybody’s preseason favorites to win the SEC and challenge for a spot in what would be their first-ever FInal Four. This is also why no one much has changed that assessment in the four months since the preseason hype.Like everybody this season, they’ve had some bumps in the road. At Texas A&M, at Mississippi State and at home against South Carolina. The common denominator among that group? They’re physical inside and play solid defense.

So Wednesday’s visit to South Carolina might get interesting. Kentucky’s visit to UT on Saturday shouldn’t be, despite the Wildcats averaging over 100 points a game over their last three outings. Kentucky may be the worst defensive team in the league _ their last three opponents have all hit over 50 percent from the field against the ‘Cats _ and the Vols have already won in Rupp. Playing at home on Senior Night should be a relative breeze.

But none of this is what March is about. March is about answered and unanswered prayers. About buzzer-beaters and buzzer-enders. It’s survive and advance, as Jim Valvano’s 1983 N.C. State team did all the way to the championship. It’s also crash and burn, as Kentucky did against 15th seeded Saint Peters a couple of years ago, and Virginia did against Maryland-Baltimore County, when it became, and remains, the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.

And so it begins. March Madness for all. March Sadness for some. But also March Magic for those who can get hot and stay hot for six games, as UConn did this time last year. And on this third day of March, no team may appear to have more magic pumping through their veins this year than Tennessee’s Veteran Vols.

(Email Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@mccallie.org)

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