It’s finally March Madness time again! It’s been two whole years, but it’s finally back. And not a moment too soon.
For Tennessee, qualifying for this tournament hasn’t always been a given. Especially through the ups and downs of the last 20 years.
Let’s take a look back at those ups and downs, shall we???
2000-01: Round of 64
In Jerry Green’s last season as a head coach, he led the Vols to a respectable 22-11 season. But after starting 16-1 and spending most of the season in the top-10, the Vols finished the season on a 5-8 run and washed out of the SEC tournament in the quarterfinals.
They managed to lock up an 8-seed in the tournament, where they lost in the first round to UNC Charlotte and future top-10 NBA draft pick Rodney White.
2001-02: Did Not Qualify
2002-03: Did Not Qualify
Two years in a row? Very sad.
2003-04: Did Not Qualify
Three years in a row??? Very, very sad.
2004-05: Did Not Qualify
Four in a row??? Get Buzz Peterson outta here!
2005-06: Round of 32
Peterson out. Bruce Pearl in.
Pearl’s first season on campus was…pretty good? The Vols reached the top-10 for a week and stayed in the top-15 for the majority of the second half of the season. Which led to the top seed in the SEC tournament. Where they lost the first game they played to South Carolina.
Very solid season. Terrible conference tournament showing. Just sounds like a two seed, doesn’t it?
As the two seed, the Vols
rolled over barely eked out a two-point win over 15 seed Winthrop. They followed that up with a disappointing loss to seven-seed Wichita State, despite valiant efforts from Chris Lofton and CJ Watson.
2006-07: Sweet Sixteen
Year two under Pearl was kind of the inverse of his first. A relatively disappointing season led to having to play in the first round of the SEC Tournament, despite being a top-25 team. They lost their first game in overtime to LSU, anyway.
Five seed for the NCAA tournament, it is.
Round one against Cal State Long Beach wasn’t close. Round two against Virginia? Closer, but a 77-74 win, nonetheless.
Along came one seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16. We all know what happened next (Greg Oden blocked a last-second Ramar Smith layup for the Vols to take the lead, in case you’ve forgotten).
It’s not as if the Vols lost to a crappy team either. Oden went on to be the number one NBA draft pick, and Mike Conley didn’t exactly fade into irrelevance, either. But blowing an almost 20 point lead with the program’s first Elite Eight appearance on the line hurt, at the time.
2007-08: Sweet Sixteen
This was the year. Or was supposed to be, at least.
Tennessee came into the season as a top-10 team, where they spent the majority of the season. Remember that 1 vs 2 match-up against Memphis? Pepperidge Farm remembers.
All in all, it was a fun regular season that culminated in outright winning the SEC regular-season title for the first time since 1967.
We don’t talk about how the SEC Tournament went. Nothing to see here.
With a 29-4 record, the Vols landed a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Round one was a tune-up game against American University. A forgettable 72-57 win.
Next up was Butler. The 29-3 Horizon Tournament champions. Tennessee needed overtime to get the win but got the win nonetheless.
Finally came the three-seed Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen. And, uh, it wasn’t really close. 79-60 Louisville, final score. For the second year in a row, the Vols washed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16.
2008-09: Round of 64
Coming off one of the best seasons in program history, the 08-09 Vols were kind of behind the 8-ball having to replace almost half of their roster due to graduation or dismissals.
Still, the season went pretty well, all things considered. They finished the regular season 19-11 and made a somewhat surprising run to the finals of the SEC Tournament, where they lost to a solid Mississippi State team.
The Vols would receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament as a nine seed, where they matched up with Oklahoma State. Maybe if they could make an SEC Tournament run, they could make a surprise NCAA Tournament run, right?
Wrong. Vols lose a close one in the first round, 77-75. And just like that, the Sweet Sixteen streak was broken.
2009-10: Elite Eight
If you’re just looking at how far they advanced in the NCAA Tournament, this was the best season in Tennessee basketball history.
The regular season was a mixed bag, and they ran into a Kentucky buzz saw in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. But the stars did align in the end for a really special tournament run.
As a six seed, they won a close one in the first round against San Diego State and a young Kawhi Leonard, 62-59.
The second round was a blowout against an outmatched Ohio team, 83-68.
In the Sweet Sixteen awaited another Ohio State team. A team that, just three years prior, had ended Tennessee’s tournament run in heartbreaking fashion. A team led by Evan Turner, who won just about every award and honor there was to win in 2010, including, but not limited to, AP POY, the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award, and Consensus All-American honors.
But the Vols won in a back-and-forth thriller to make their first (and still only) Elite Eight in program history. It was, and still is, one of the most memorable wins in program history.
Sure, Tennessee fans had their hearts ripped out of their chest in a one-point loss against Michigan State in the Elite Eight. But it’s the journey we remember, not the destination…right?
2010-11: Round of 64
It all started with such promise and would end with such heartbreak.
The regular season started with the Vols going up and down and round and round in the top-25. But a 3-6 run in the middle of the season was a sign of things to come. The wheels fell off, and Tennessee finished the regular season 18-13.
Then they lost to Florida in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
But they still got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament! So that’s something!
Well, they got hammered by eight-seed Michigan in the first round, 75-45.
And just to add a little salt to the wound, Bruce Pearl was fired three days later.
2011-12: Did Not Qualify
Out goes Pearl, in comes Cuonzo Martin. He just needed more time to get his players in and implement his system, so they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year.
2012-13: Did Not Qualify
He still needed more time to get his players in and implement his system, so they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year either.
2013-14: Sweet Sixteen
Okay, Cuonzo finally got his players in and implemented his system.
This iteration of Tennessee basketball was middling, for the most part. They never cracked the top-25 but did manage to get the highly sought-after double-bye in the SEC Tournament. They beat a so-so South Carolina team with ease but lost to regular-season champion, soon-to-be SEC Tournament champion, and eventual Final Four participant Florida in the semi-finals.
But the Vols were given a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, under the condition they win their play-in game against Iowa. Tennessee managed to make it interesting but pulled away in overtime to beat the Hawkeyes 78-65.
Their reward? Getting an overrated UMass team in the first round. A game they would win with ease, 86-67.
Their reward for that win?
Wow, another actual reward. Mercer, who had shocked third seed Duke just a day earlier, came in on their high horse to play Tennessee. They were promptly removed from said high horse to the tune of an 83-63 manhandling. Tennessee’s reward?
They’re rewarded this time with a heartbreaking loss in large part due to poor officiating. More on brand, isn’t it?
Two seed Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. A Michigan team that was loaded with future NBA players, including Glenn Robinson, Nik Stauskas, and Caris LeVert.
But the Vols kept it close. Naturally, it came down to the last few seconds of the game.
With six seconds remaining, down 72-21, the Vols inbound the ball under Michigan’s basket to Jarnell Stokes. Stokes makes a move to the basket and promptly draws what can only be described as a questionable charge call. Michigan wins on the back of the stripes, and Vols go home heartbroken.
Look, I don’t want to be the “blame the refs” guy after a loss, but I’m shamelessly going to do it twice in this article. You can probably guess what the second one will be.
2014-15: Did Not Qualify
After the heartbreaking end to the 2013-14 season, Vol fans wanted Cuonzo gone and replaced with their beloved Bruce Pearl. So Cuonzo left, and Vol fans got Donnie Tyndall.
We don’t talk about the Donnie Tyndall era at Tennessee.
2015-16: Did Not Qualify
Out goes Tyndall, in comes Rick Barnes. Lots of changes around the program means no NCAA Tournament.
2016-17: Did Not Qualify
Slight improvement in year two for Barnes, but still no NCAA Tournament.
2017-18: Round of 32
Finally, Tennessee gets back to its winning ways. They spent the majority of the end of the season in the top-25 and won a share of the regular-season SEC title after a thriller with Georgia to end the season.
Tennessee even managed to make it all the way to the SEC Tournament final where they lost to Kentucky. But still, they had done enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament as a three seed.
Round one was Wright State. Nothing to see here, an easy win for the Vols.
Round two was…oh God, the memories just came flooding back.
They came out of nowhere to make a Final Four run, did the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago. And Tennessee was just collateral damage along the way. On a last-second circus shot from Clayton Custer, the Ramblers upset heavily favored Tennessee, 63-62.
And no, I refuse to make a joke about Sister Jean. Everyone at FanRun, past, and present, has always admired and respected her without exception.
2018-19: Sweet Sixteen
One of the best teams in program history. But it all led to the Carsen Edwards phantom call game. No more need be said about this one. We all remember it, and the wound is still fresh.
Shouts out to Jeff Anderson, while we’re here. Never seen an official so efficiently warrant disdain from an entire fan base AND the mainstream sports media after one game. Incredible, really. And yes, this is the second time I’ve been “blame the refs after a loss” guy in this article.
2019-20: Canceled, Probably Wouldn’t Have Qualified
Obviously, because of Covid, March Madness was canceled last year. But barring a special SEC Tournament run, Tennessee probably wouldn’t have qualified for this one, anyway.
Tip-off against Pac-12 Champion Oregon State this afternoon at 4:30 EST. Watch it or be a square.