Sunday, September 24

‘Everything is coming full circle’: Vols looking for NCAA Tournament redemption

INDIANAPOLIS — A year ago, a chain link fence surrounded the team hotel. Inside, players spent most of their days stuck in hotel rooms. And you only got there after taking a COVID test and quarantining for 24 hours.

Memories of the NCAA Tournament bubble experience aren’t quickly forgotten.

“I remember in this gym right here,” Tennessee center Uros Plavsic said Wednesday, “we were honestly like just warming up and waiting to get on the court, wear masks and all this stuff. And now it’s just so much difference, all the people are in front of you and stuff like this.”

A year ago, all 68 teams in the field came to Indianapolis, entered the bubble and hoped to stay there. For Tennessee, it was only a few days. Oregon State, the No. 12 seed, started a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight by bouncing the fifth-seeded Vols, 70-56.

Now Tennessee (26-7) is back in Indianapolis with a No. 3 seed, facing No. 14 Longwood (22-6) on Thursday (2:45 p.m. Eastern Time; TV: CBS) at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the same gym where a frustrating season came to a frustrating close last March.

“One of our players last year, Keon Johnson, said to me one of his highlights was getting to the NCAA Tournament,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, “but one of the biggest disappointments was how it turned out.

“And not just losing the game, because it was just so different for everybody last year.”

Tennessee’s biggest disappointment on the floor was having no answer in the post or on the perimeter. Roman Silva, the 7-foot-1 Oregon State center, scored 16 points while going a perfect 8-for-8 from the field. Jarod Lucas scored 14 points, going 4-for-9 from the 3-point line, and grabbed six rebounds. Ethan Thomas had 13 points while Zach Reichle and Maurice Calloo combined for 16 more, going 6-for-12 from the arc.

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The Vols trailed by 14 at halftime and it was all but over by then. Johnson and Jaden Springer had 26 points between them, as the five-star one-and-done freshmen guards made their final appearances in Tennessee uniforms. Santiago Vescovi scored 11. The team went just 5-for-26 from the 3-point line at what was known at the time as Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Josiah-Jordan James said it hit him on Sunday evening, not long after the NCAA Tournament bracket was released. The Vols were headed back to the same city to play in the same gym, where and up-and-down season bottomed out. He didn’t hate the tournament’s selection committee for the placement, either.

“I’m happy to be back,” James said. “I was excited that they put us back here. I think everything is coming full circle, and I’m glad we have a chance to redeem ourselves.”

Tennessee entered last March skidding. The Vols started the season with a 10-1 record, winning four of their first five SEC games, before losing six of their final 13 on the regular-season schedule. They beat Florida as the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, but couldn’t make a 16-point lead in the second half stand up the next day against No. 1-seed Alabama.

Any semblance of a skid for the current team was flushed two months ago. Tennessee started the SEC schedule 2-3, with road losses at Alabama, LSU and Kentucky, but have won 15 of 17 games since then. The lone losses were 52-51 at Texas and 58-48 at Arkansas.

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“We got off definitely to a start that we didn’t envision,” James said of the early conference losses, “but I think this team is resilient, and I knew from the summer and the workouts and the pieces that we had, I knew we had a special team, and we never really held our heads down.

“We knew we had to make adjustments, and we had to get better, and thankfully we were able to do that.”

The Vols enter Thursday’s first round riding a seven-game win streak, after winning three games in three days in Tampa over the weekend to take home the program’s first SEC Tournament championship since 1979.

Now they’re looking for another tournament run, helping them forget what happened a year ago in the familiar surroundings of Indianapolis.

“I feel like this year, coming from last year, it made us not take this moment or this opportunity for granted,” James said. “So I think we’re just trying to get the most out of it as a team.”

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