The message from coach Rick Barnes and company via the Players’ Tribune was simple: “You didn’t pick us before. So why start now?”
After all, Tennessee has thrived this season without the national spotlight.
The Vols were picked in the preseason to finish No. 13 in the SEC, but instead won their first regular season SEC championship in 10 years. Their young roster was supposed to be a cause for concern, but Tennessee dominated the SEC awards, winning Coach of the Year with Rick Barnes, Player of the Year with Grant Williams and Sixth Man of the Year with Lamonte Turner.
If you took a look at Tennessee’s roster, the only part that would probably cause you to double take would be its lack of four and five star recruits. Tennessee’s main contributors are mainly two and three star guys, overlooked during their time in high school.
The key to Tennessee’s success has been its coach.
No player on Tennessee’s roster has ever played in the NCAA Tournament, but here they are entering as a three seed. Barnes is making appearance No. 23 as a head coach and is now one of only 13 head coaches to ever lead four different Division I programs to the “Big Dance.” His players have completely bought in to his system and the Tennessee program has made significant strides in just three seasons.
Tennessee’s potential as a team was evidenced from the very beginning this season. In the “Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament,” the four sophomores and one junior took down a seasoned Purdue team in overtime, 78-75. The Vols then had future number one seed Villanova on the ropes before turnovers derailed their upset efforts, ultimately falling 85-76.
These surprising performances were definitely a sign of things to come, as the Vols went 13-5 in conference play and closed out the year with a close loss to Kentucky in the SEC championship.
In terms of its bracket, Tennessee could be a sleeper coming out of the south region. With top seed Virginia losing De’Andre Hunter for the tournament and with two seed Cincinnati as the lowest ranked two seed, Tennessee could be looking at a Final Four trip … but coach Barnes and the Vols would probably tell you to pick someone else.