On missed opportunities and the future of UT men's hoops
Found and Lost
by Tony Basilio
It's going to be his greatest challenge yet, and you get the feeling that though he won't admit it he knows it just the same. In Rocky Top it seems to be encoded in the Big Orange DNA. In men's basketball, March Madness has truly been March Sadness. Tennessee is defined by one missed opportunity after another. The Ernie and Bernie era, as great as it was, somehow netted zero NCAA Tournament wins. Don DeVoe wasn't much better. All the talent that Kevin O'Neill left Jerry Green was only good enough for one Sweet 16 appearance when Jed let Carolina overcome a seven point deficit in the final four minutes negating Tennessee's opportunity to make the school's first Elite Eight in school history back in '00. And they're still waiting to this day. That was seven years ago.
Following the collapse against Ohio State, the Tennessean reported that Bruce Pearl ripped into the downtrodden Vols with a profanity-laced tirade that could be heard reverberating down the halls at the Alamodome. Pearl knows what many in Rocky Top fail to understand. Tennessee had a tailor-made path to the Final Four. Yes, the Holy Grail of hoops! The real Final Four! Yet Tennessee let a 20-point lead slip away. The worst collapse in the history of the NCAA tourney's round of 16. While you could question Pearl's tactics, it's hard to fault his emotions. He understands that March is about opportunities, and Tennessee may never get a better one than this to perhaps win a National Championship.
Tennessee knew it had a team that was capable of beating any one of the 16 teams left. They were as battle tested as anyone in the tournament. The scheduling of head assistant Tony Jones proved masterful as the Vols played six of the final 16 teams left in the field. Six of the final 16 teams! There have been entire decades where Tennessee didn't play that caliber of competition. So the Vols knew they had the right stuff to take down Ohio State. They let the Buckeyes slip through their hands in January in Columbus. This game was being played hundreds of miles away in San Antonio in front of a truly neutral crowd.
So the Vols sat and watched the first game of the night go to Memphis as they gutted out a huge win over heavily favored and virtually homestanding Texas A&M. This is the same Memphis team that Tennessee blistered in Thompson-Boling Arena back in December. The same Memphis team that would be lured into running with Tennessee's team. There was no one left in the tournament that would be a more perfect opponent for the Vols. Memphis was silly enough to try and play Tennessee's game, and they would've been lured into it again. All that stood between this opportunity was managing a 17-point halftime lead against Ohio State. Not only did Tennessee not manage the situation well, they laid down for the first seven minutes of the second half. But as was their tendency all year, they got back up and took a lead late in the game.
Some Tennessee fans maintained the Vols choked in blowing the 20-point lead. I disagree. Choking would have been allowing Ohio State to outscore them profusely and getting beat by 10 at game's end. Of course, this would have been too clean for Tennessee to execute. So, give them credit. They followed the script to the very end. And the script called for a strange ending with a missed opportunity that could have Vol fans decades from now wondering, "What if?" Now, that's Tennessee basketball in March.
What if Tennessee actually hit its foul shots down the stretch? What if Dane Bradshaw made that wide-open layup that would've given Tennessee a five-point lead with under three minutes to go? What if Jujuan Smith attempted a lay-up instead of something that looked like it came out of ESPN's Streetball series? What if Bruce Pearl took a time-out sooner during Ohio State's ensuing second-half run? What if Ryan Childress played more? What if Tennessee had a better reputation in basketball and maybe either got a no-call on Conley at the end of the game or reciprocity on the drive by Ramar Smith? And perhaps the greatest "What if" of them all: What if Chris Lofton got to touch the ball in Tennessee's last possession? Would he have hit the shot?
Perhaps St. Joseph's Head Coach Phil Martelli put it best on the finality of a missed opportunity in March. Three years ago his Hawks, then the No. 1 team in America, were defeated by Oklahoma State on a fluke three-pointer as time was expiring in the round of eight: "It's just an awful feeling. I remember waking up the next day and feeling like all that hard work we did, all the accomplishments, all the great times were just a waste. It's a terribly empty feeling. That's how Bruce and those kids have to be feeling right now.... but the pain of losing it like that when you're that close never goes away. It never does!"
Tennessee basketball will be back on the grand stage. Bruce Pearl and his staff are too good to believe otherwise.
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.