Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Happy Place

It's weird.

We've reached a threshold in men's basketball here in Knoxville. This is a rare place in any sport, at any time. The Vols have reached a place where the 2006-2007 basketball season is already a success. If the 5 seed Vols lose to the 1 seed Buckeyes on Thursday night, as the experts are expecting, they won't have to apologize for it. They'll have been only the second Tennessee team ever to reach the Sweet 16. And everybody knows that the Vols will be a year older and just as, if not more talented next year. Only Dane Bradshaw leaves.

But the point is, anything that happens from here will be bonus. The football and women's basketball programs have reached a level of prestige where this scenario is not possible. If this trend continues under Bruce Pearl, the men's basketball team will soon follow suit - they'll stop being a nice story and a pleasant surprise, and we'll start expecting SEC Championships and Final Fours, and respond in kind when they don't happen. It comes with the territory.

But this is a story of journey, not just destination. And this journey, from first round exits in the NIT to a Sweet 16 date, has been unique. It's been surreal. And it's been fun.

The journey went through Columbus last weekend, and a game against ACC Champion Virginia that Vol teams of old simply wouldn't have won. Chris Lofton does not play his best game at all from the field, your best post player picks up fouls three and four in a heartbeat to open the second half, and you've got a world of freshmen who haven't been here before. Then, after the team makes yet another incredible run to take the lead, the Vols win the game at the place they've struggled the most all year, hitting eight straight free throws to close the game. So instead of going home and looking towards next year, we play on.

And now the journey goes to San Antonio, where the Vols will be underdogs the rest of the way home. It starts with a one seed, but not one that you haven't seen and stood toe to toe with before. We'll not discuss it going any further than that until it does. But Tennessee has already taken this season and this program to a new place. This season gets the thumbs up. Should the Vols upset Ohio State, it's the icing on the cake.

And that's no reason to start settling now.

The Vols have been here once before, in 2000, with better players but not a better team. One of the differences between this Sweet 16 and that one seven years ago is the bracket. That year, the Vols were a 4 seed, but arrived in Austin for the Sweet 16 having watched Stanford, Cincinnati, and Ohio State - seeded 1, 2, and 3 in the South Region - all lose in the second round. Therefore, the Vols were the highest seed remaining, and had just knocked off defending champion UConn in the second round. The bracket included 6 seed Miami, 7 seed Tulsa, and 8 seed North Carolina. It looked like Tennessee could punch their ticket to the Final Four.

Then Tennessee built a 9 point second half lead on North Carolina...which made it all the more painful when they lost it. By the time the horn sounded and the Vols had fallen 74-69, it didn't feel like a successful season, it felt like a huge missed opportunity.

Even last year, the magical first year under Pearl, ended with a bad aftertaste, and again largely due to the bracket. As a 2 seed, Tennessee had a clear path to the Sweet 16, but the Vols struggled with Winthrop before falling to Wichita State. Had the Vols won, they would've drawn George Mason in the Sweet 16, and playing as a 2 seed they had good location. But alas, it was not to be.

But this year, the locations have been friendly (barring an Elite Eight game with Texas A&M in San Antonio) and so have the seeds - as I said before the tournament started, I think the Vols would rather be matched with Ohio State and Memphis than any other 1 and 2 seeds.

Here's an interesting question/observation:

Is this the biggest game in the history of Tennessee Basketball?

I'll let you be the judge of that, but playing a #1 seed that you know you can run with, with a chance to become the first team in Tennessee history to reach the Elite Eight? I think it's hard to argue with.

Bruce Pearl has already taken the Vols to new heights, heights unimagined, and especially unimagined possible in just two years. We've talked here about the strength of the university's athletic department as a whole, and how the basketball team has been the final piece. Pearl talked about the Sweet 16 being a necessary step to give some proof behind the claim that UT is a Top 20 program nationally. He's done that. Tennessee is here, and appears to be here to stay under Pearl.

No matter what happens Thursday night, this has been another great year for Tennessee Basketball. The season is a success.

But the true sign of arrival is that Tennessee has every shot to win this game, not just be happy to be playing in it. Before we remember fondly this season and Dane Bradshaw, and before we look ahead to the immense talent returning in 07-08...let's know that the Vols can stand and deliver with Ohio State on Thursday night. And even if this is the icing on the cake, the Vols can make it that much sweeter if they keep winning.

Enjoy this.

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