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Tennessee Basketball Falls Flat, Bounced in the Tournament’s First Round

The 2020-2021 Tennessee basketball season is officially over, as the Vols fell victim to the chaos of the “March Madness” tournament.

There is nothing that could diminish the resilience of the Tennessee basketball team off-the-court this season, as they battled endless COVID guidelines to be able to play their season. 

But there’s also no denying that Tennessee likely just wrapped up one of, if not the most disappointing season in U-T basketball history.

In the first round of the 2021 NCAA basketball tournament, No. 5 Tennessee (18-9) was defeated by No. 12 Oregon State (18-12) by a score of 70-56. The Beavers only had a 16 percent chance to win the game, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Heading into the season, Tennessee definitely faced mounted expectations. But they were also seemingly justified.

The Vols opened the season as the projected winner of the SEC as the 12th ranked team in the country. Tennessee had just brought in two five-star players who we’re going to re-energize the entire program. And by week five, Tennessee had elevated themselves to No. 8 and would peak at No. 6 in week nine. 

Not to mention, the football team was a dumpster fire in those early months, leaving fans even more desperate for winning sports. 

But the teams’ inconsistent play would plague them throughout the season, and eventually be their downfall in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Tennessee fell apart against Alabama after going toe-to-toe with the Tide in the first half. And then, with just under a full week of rest, Tennessee barely even showed up to Indianapolis.

“[I’m] disappointed that I didn’t think we played our best basketball,” said head coach Rick Barnes after the season-ending loss. 

“Hopefully we can move forward and win some games here next year.”

Tennessee Looked… Lost

There’s no two-way’s around it, Tennessee just looked lost against Oregon State. And there are so many questions surrounding the “why”, with very few definitive answers.

From the players to the coaching staff, and including the gameplan, Tennessee could not have looked more out of sync. Especially for the biggest game of the year.

The offense specifically was abysmal to start the game.

“Yeah, there’s no doubt at the start of the game that we had guys who had a little bit of stage fright,” said Barnes.

Imagine the first five-minutes of the Florida game that closed the season. Except for this time, John Fulkerson was sidelined and wasn’t able to give you any points while the rest of the team started ice-cold.

The Vols finally crossed into double-digits in total scoring after a while. They would hit that mark, but only after over 13 minutes had elapsed in the game. The Vols would only score eight more over the next seven minutes as they trailed 33-19 at the break.

The shot selection during the game left many scratching their heads.

When the Vols midrange game is working, typically, good things tend to happen. But Friday was not one of those days. Tennessee was not hitting from the mid-range, no matter how they tried to disguise it. It didn’t matter if it was a floater, pull up, or turn-around. The shots were from the middle of the court and Tennessee could not sink them.

According to Will Warren on Twitter, the Beavers we’re ranked as the No. 118 defensive team in the country heading into the game. But even more notable, they ranked No. 268 in two-point field-goal percentage as well.

Yet even still, Tennessee had absolutely no offensive rhythm, as no one on the team was able to get rolling. To think that Tennessee got bounced in the first round by a team, who yes, is hot, but also ranked so low defensively is frustrating on multiple levels. It wasn’t even in a shootout. Tennessee tied its second-lowest scoring night of the year in the loss.

The Vols needed a true leader to step up and put the team on their back. It just didn’t happen.

A Few Tennessee Basketball Careers Likely Wrapped Up

As the dust settled around the loss, many realized that it would likely be their last time watching some of the favorite Tennessee players.

Yves Pons, a senior on the team who embodied the spirit of Tennessee throughout his 115 games for the Big Orange, walked off the court for the final time on Friday.

Pons will be most known as one of the greatest rim protectors in Tennessee history. His electric swats energized Thompson-Boling Arena on too many occasions to count.

The six-foot-six musician/poet/all-around-showman from Fuveau, France, ended with 653 total points, 137 total blocks, and 379 total rebounds. He also is tied for No. 1 with the most blocks in a single Tennessee season ever (73). His Volunteer career lasted from 2017 until 2021.

Vols freshman Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer led the team in scoring, as it was likely the last time either will wear a Tennessee uniform with the NBA draft looming.

Johnson finished the afternoon with 14 points and was the engine for Tennessee on Friday. Although few, Johnson had the only highlight-making plays of the game, including an incredible coast-to-coast buzzer-beater to end the first half.

As they have all season long, Johnson and Springer continued to be the most consistent part of the inconsistent team. Both young men gave their all for Tennessee, and we’re immensely critical to the team all season as they likely leave for the NBA next.

Springer ended the game with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the floor.

And, of course, there is John Fulkerson. One of the most beloved players in Tennessee basketball history has yet to announce his decision on the future. However, he does have the option of returning to Tennessee for one more year instead of playing professional basketball.

Fulkerson spent his day on the Tennessee sideline, which is anything but what the Tennessee team or fans imagined would be the scene to close the season.

As Barnes mentioned after the game, there is “no one that has had a more frustrating season than John Fulkerson.”

Offensive Deficiencies 

Against Oregon State on Friday, Tennessee shot the ball 33.3 percent from the field and 19.2 percent from behind the three-point line.

“We came out and we didn’t execute anything that we had been practicing over the last couple of weeks,” said Josiah-Jordan James after the game. “We were flustered and it probably looked like we were scared, but that’s how the game goes.”

Knowing that Tennessee reverted to their play style of about a month ago seemingly, back to when Tennessee was atrocious offensively, it makes more sense. What doesn’t make sense though is how the team could forget everything that had been working in practice.

Was the moment too big for a team of inexperienced tournament players? Did the coaches not prepare the team in the right way? Was the team set up to win with its offensive and defensive strategy? How were the rotations decided, and why was the small ball mindset abandoned before the game even started?

There are more question’s where those came from…

Uros Plavsic started the game for the first time this year, in an attempt for Tennessee to replace the size of Fulkerson down low. It did not work out though.

Plavsic finished with one point in the game.

If Plavsic was only going to play for ten total minutes, was it really necessary to interrupt the continuity of your main players by inserting him into the starting lineup?

“Nobody is more disappointed than we are,” said James after the game. “We had high expectations of winning it all, and we came up short.”

What’s Next?

If you have been following my articles here at the end of the season, first off, thank you. But you also know that I finish every postgame report with a what’s next section. This time though, there’s no immediate answer.

The closest answer to what’s next is simply just an evaluation of the season from the coaches, players, and the media.

Don’t let the disappointing loss diminish your appreciation for what the team went through just to be here, though. 

All season long we saw videos of the team in spread-out workouts, lifting weights and scrimmaging in masks, and having to alter their day-to-day lives just to play this game on television for the fans. Many of these college students didn’t see their own families for long stretches of the season. 

We may never know the extent of what they had to put up with to make this season happen. No matter how it finished, the Vols gave us all entertainment for months, in the midst of a pandemic.

So at least for me personally, Ric Butler, I’ll break kayfabe for one split-second. To say thank you to the entire Tennessee basketball program. 

There will be plenty of time to look ahead to the future. Plenty of time to assess the problems of this season and evaluate the next team for Tennessee.

The season ended far before Tennessee or their fans ever imagined it would. In reality, the week-long stretch including the SEC and NCAA tournament’s are a microcosm of Tennessee’s entire season.

Tennessee has a lot of work to do this off-season. But that is a conversation for a different day.

“It’s been a hard year,” said Barnes. “If I said anything otherwise, it wouldn’t be honest.”As mentioned following the Alabama loss, “Glimpses of greatness throughout the season are overshadowed as the team struggles to consistently sustain top-level play.

All photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics and the NCAA Tournament.

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