Early in the week, I wrote that Tennessee was in the rare place of having already accomplished a season that would be viewed as successful. Anything they did in the Sweet 16 or beyond would be icing on the cake. And furthermore, that there was no way that anything that happened against Ohio State could be more painful than what happened against North Carolina back in 2000.
I'm wrong a lot.
To be sure, this season was still remarkable, successful, and good. The Vols are still on the way up - the fact that we have such a gripe about a loss to the #1 team in the country in the Sweet 16 proves as much. And 99% of Vol Nation is still going to give this team a round of applause and the "you'll get 'em next time!" speech.
But my oh my, what could've been...
Tennessee has showed all year that they're capable, because of their style of play, hot shooting, and the x-factor in Chris Lofton, of beating anyone on any given night. That's how they ambushed Memphis, that's how they came back from 17 down to beat Texas, that's how they built huge leads against Florida and Kentucky. But as someone said on SportsTalk yesterday, against Ohio State, Tennessee showed that if they're firing on all cylinders, there might not be anyone who was capable of beating them. Tennessee wasn't just up 20 points on anybody. They were up 20 points on the #1 team in the nation.
And there's more. Greg Oden was a non-factor for the vast majority of the game. Ohio State had never been down like that before. Memphis was waiting on Saturday, victims of an 18 point beatdown from the Vols back in December. You were slowly starting to think, somewhere in the back of your mind but creeping towards the front, "We could actually make the Final Four." And it wasn't fanboy optimism - it was real.
Last year against Kentucky at Thompson-Boling, the Vols built a first half lead of something like 14 points, then folded on defense in the second half, allowing Kentucky to shoot somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-80% - which, as I discussed with a friend of mine yesterday, it's hard to shoot that well with no one guarding you - and the Vols' huge lead melted away into an eventual Kentucky victory.
This year, at home against both Kentucky and Florida, fans who were enjoying another double digit lead against Kentucky, and an inexplicable 27 point lead on Florida, once again found themselves sweating, and sweating very quickly. Florida trimmed the Vols lead from 27 to 8 in a matter of minutes. Kentucky pulled even. Both times, the Vols showed resiliancy, grit, and - playing in front of the home faithful - pulled back in front and won the game.
Ohio State trimmed the lead from 20 to 7 in the blink of an eye. There was a 19-5 run in there during which they scored on something like 11 of 12 trips down the floor. Soon after that, Ohio State tied it, then they took the lead. Not on the last play of the game, but with lots and lots of time left on the clock. What you're seeing here looks less and less like a fluke and more and more like a potential trend - big first half lead with incredible shooting, lack of defensive intensity/intelligence early in the second half combined with average shooting, lead evaporates. If I know it, Bruce knows it, and we all have faith in Bruce to fix it, right?
Credit Tennessee for not folding when Ohio State took the lead. Credit Chris Lofton for doing what Chris Lofton does - the answer-the-bell 3 he hit just seconds after Ohio State hit one to take a 82-79 lead was one of the biggest shots he's ever hit - and credit Ryan Childress for being better, both from beyond the arc and in the paint, than anyone was ever dreaming he could be.
But here's the stat that hurts me the most. In Columbus in January, the Vols shot 5 of 11 from the free throw line. In San Antonio on Thursday, the Vols shot 8 of 17. That's two games against Ohio State, and two losses by a combined three points in which the Vols shot a combined 13 of 28 - 46% - from the free throw line. In the Sweet 16 game, Tennessee shot better from three than from the free throw line. That's incredible, in a really heartbreaking sort of way.
The Vols were money down the stretch against Virginia. Watching the last few moments of that one, I commented to my friends that free throw shooting was going to cost us one...but it didn't happen last week. Free throw shooting won the game against UVA.
But against Ohio State....and it's not like we're asking for 75% from the line. If Tennesse shoots somewhere in the neighborhood of 60% instead of 46% - and junior pro teams shoot better than 46% - then they beat Ohio State in January, and they're still playing today.
And you're not going to get such favorable draws every time out. This is two years in a row where the bracket has broken Tennessee's way - had the Vols, as a 2 seed, beat Wichita State last year, they would've drawn 11 seed George Mason in the Sweet 16. Getting placed with Ohio State and Memphis this year was the best you could ask for. And the Vols have failed to take advantage twice now.
Should Ohio State - or Memphis or Florida, for that matter - end up winning the whole thing, you're going to wince.
Again - as Phillip Fulmer is fond of saying - as much as you hurt when we lose, and as much as you want to watch the Vols win, he feels it and lives it more. And it's exactly the same with Bruce Pearl. He feels it. He knows. He will always remember.
So we close the book on Dane Bradshaw - who cannot be replaced, only remembered - and the 2007 season. Thumbs up and well done to the Vols, yet again.
Now the bar is about to go up to a brand new level.
Bruce Pearl said he'd need two first seasons - his actual first one, and then his first one playing with all these freshmen. Now, in Year Three, the pieces are going to be in place for everything.
Ramar Smith, Wayne Chism, Duke Crews, and Josh Tabb will now be sophomores. Ramar Smith is a consistent jump shot - not a great jump shot, just a consistent one - away from being the best point guard in the SEC. You can see with the way he creates that he is and is going to be a critical factor for the Vols. Wayne Chism is one post-up move - be it a CJ Black jump hook, a drop step or something - away from being the best returning post player in the SEC, with Big Baby already out and the assumption that Noah/Horford will do the same. Duke Crews will likely learn to play power forward and join the starting lineup, but even if Pearl leaves him on the bench, suddenly you're much more comfortable with Ryan Childress in the starting lineup.
Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, and Jordan Howell will be seniors. So for the first time in Pearl's tenure, there's a sense of urgency - if you don't advance with this group, you'll be playing with a lesser hand in 2009. And sure, we've got a scholarship left and there's gotta be a 6'9-6'10" body out there somewhere to help with fouls and minutes in the paint. JP Prince, transferring in from Arizona, sounds like a great 6th man option.
The schedule will bring Ohio State to Knoxville and send the Vols to Memphis, and Pearl is still looking for two more big non-conference games. There is an SEC/Big East Challenge in the works, though I'm not sure if it starts in 2008 or 2009. The Vols will also do some European traveling.
So the stakes have become high instantly, and Pearl knows this and respects this. The players are a part of it and believe in it. And so, as we enter the long orange void between now and the Cal game in September, you begin to look forward to basketball season the way you're worrying about Erik Ainge's meniscus. And you can thank Bruce Pearl for that.
The Vols had Ohio State and let them get away. They will not forget it. In 1997, losing to Nebraska was the best thing that ever happened to Tennessee Football. Let's hope, ten years later, that we can look back on Thursday night and find the good in it. Either way, our basketball team is going to be in the National Championship conversation from day one next season. We've arrived to the conversation. The next step will be to earn it, stay in it, and keep advancing, keep moving forward. And the pieces are in place.