This is one of the more frustrating Tennessee men’s basketball teams in recent memory. Despite a roster with pro-level talent, this squad can’t seem to survive any success. For most of the season, it has had a migraine-inducing inability to string together a significant conference winning streak. Too often, the offense simply disappears against inferior opponents contributing to the team being labeled as “underachievers”. All of this only causes fan frustration to grow with the head coach.
I am, of course, talking about the 2013-14 Volunteers coached by Cuonzo Martin. Or, am I talking about the current crop of Basketball Vols directed by Rick Barnes? It feels like it could be either or it could be both.
Like Looking in a Mirror
There are other similarities between these two teams besides being frustrating under-performers. Both teams had/have pro-level players. Cuonzo’s team had Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, and Josh Richardson. This year’s Vols include Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer, Yves Pons and Josiah-Jordan James. They are also statistically similar. Field goal percentage (44.7% for 2014 vs. 44.4% for 2021), 3-point percentage (33.6% vs. 34.3%), points per game (71.3 vs. 72.8), and opponent points per game (62.0 vs. 62.7) all make one team appear as a mirror image of the other.
Are All Losses Created Equal?
Even though the similarities found in comparing these two teams can be summed up in the over-used “Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man” meme, there are some significant differences, too. One such difference is in the way each team loses (or “looses” for The 37). The ’13-’14 Vols lost to some very bad teams (UTEP, Vandy, Texas A&M twice). However, they were only blown out once: a 26-point thumping by then-6th ranked Florida. This current team isn’t losing to very bad teams, necessarily. However, they are getting curb-stomped too often when they do lose. The average margin of defeat in their seven losses is over 11 points. For the fourth highest-paid coach in the nation with a roster full of NBA talent, this is unacceptable.
Is There an Alpha In the House?
Another difference is the presence of an “alpha” offensive player on the rosters. McRae and Stokes were the “go-to” players all season for that 2013-14 team. One of those two players had the ball in their hands whenever the team had to have a bucket.
For the present-day Volunteers, there is, arguably, no alpha. Fulkerson was thought to be “the guy” when the season started; however, that hasn’t been the case for most of his senior campaign. Can we believe #FulkysBack after Sunday’s Florida game? We hoped that was the case after he scored 19 against the Gamecocks. Unfortunately, he followed that up with only four points in each of the next three games. So, does this team have a “go-to” guy? Despite all of the talent on the roster, I would argue that they do not. However, fans’ thoughts and prayers are with Fulkerson finishing what might be his final season playing at that elite level for another two or three weeks.
A Reason For Hope?
Do the 2014 Vols provide an example of hope for this season’s team? McRae, Stokes, and Richardson led their team to a strong finish in the SEC regular season and secured one of the last invitations for that year’s Big Dance. A strong run in the NCAA Tournament ended with a bogus charge call on Stokes against Michigan with a visit to the Elite Eight in the balance. A team that had, truthfully, under-performed most of the season reached their potential at the right time.
The 2020-21 Vols are, on paper, one of the most (if not THE most) talented teams to ever play for Tennessee. Three of Tennessee’s top seven basketball recruits of all time are on this squad. Add in two pre-season All-SEC players and this team should evoke fear from every opponent and be ready to roll to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Yet…here we are: nervous that we may be facing a first-round knock-out in the NCAAs.
Can this year’s Vols hoops team follow in the footsteps of the team from seven years ago? Can they get it together, muster up some consistency and go deep in the NCAAs? Sure…Maybe…I don’t know. However, the bigger problem is I don’t think Rick Barnes or his team knows either.