Of all the words to describe Tennessee basketball through an up and down regular season and early exit, head coach Rick Barnes chose to call his team ‘resilient.’
A team that has faced countless injuries, including one that ended the season of their starting point guard, the Vols have played just a handful of games with a completely healthy team. In those few games, Tennessee has looked like one of the best teams in college basketball.
“I told you guys I don't know if I've been through in all my years in coaching what we've gone through with the injuries this year,” Barnes said. “Right when you think you're getting it all back, it doesn't happen.”
In the games where they aren’t fully healthy, the Vols look vulnerable and sometimes discombobulated — like in their disappointing quarterfinal loss to Missouri in the SEC Tournament.
But even through that loss and others, Tennessee has been resilient, and that resiliency won’t stop as the Vols head into an NCAA Tournament that many people have already counted them out of.
“We got a chance. I'm telling you, I think we've got as much a chance as anybody,” Barnes said. “If you ask me what I'm thinking of right now, one word it would be this team has been very resilient. There's a lot of teams that would like to be where we are right now. There's a lot of teams that won't look forward to a matchup with us.”
Tennessee’s hopeful tournament run will begin on Thursday when the No. 4 Vols take on No. 13 Louisiana in Orlando, Florida.
The Vols are still figuring out their team without Zakai Zeigler. They had several breakdowns on defense in the SEC Tournament that likely would have been avoided if Zeigler was on the court. On offense, they looked stagnant — especially when Santiago Vescovi wasn’t on the floor.
But one of the areas Tennessee missed Zeigler the most was late in the game when it had a chance to win, but couldn’t close out Missouri in the final stretch.
“Overall, I do, I think our guys know what we have to do,” Barnes said. “You look at what we have done in the month of February and what we have had to work through. We have been in really every game with a chance to win it. We just have to find a way to close some of them out.”
The Vols’ first round opponent won’t be a cakewalk. Louisiana cruised through its Sun Belt opponents and is now looking to have a Cinderella run in the tournament.
The Ragin Cajuns are led by former 5-star recruit Jordan Brown. The Arizona transfer — which Barnes tried to recruit to Tennessee — averages 19.4 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game and will be a force in the paint for Louisiana.
“If you are in this tournament, you are good and you have had success,” Barnes said. “You ought to feel good. You ought to feel confident. I just have tremendous respect for Bob (Marlin) and what he has done with that program.”
Despite what has been a less-than-optimal end to the regular season, the Vols are now looking to turn the page and make a deep run in the tournament. A shell of their early-season selves, the Vols still have one thing: resiliency.
“These guys, great attitude, great work ethic,” Barnes said. “Again, as a coach, I couldn't ask for any more from these guys because they really do want to win.”
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