Believe it or not, Tennessee is Final Four good

No major American sport loves its narratives, and views them more as absolutes, than men’s college basketball.

Mike Krzyzewski just can’t win the big one.

Virginia’s style will never translate to NCAA tournament success.

A freshman-led team will never cut down the nets.

No major American sport loves doing more of a 180 when those narratives get ripped to shreds in March than men’s college basketball.

Coach K is the modern day John Wooden.

Every team would be playing some form of the pack line defense if they were smart.

Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis

When it comes to March and narratives that have yet to be flipped on their heads, everyone knows what Tennessee’s is.

Relatively speaking, the Volunteers have an extremely proud college hoops tradition. They’ve won 15 conference championships, advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament nine times, and have more all-time wins than programs like Virginia, Georgetown and Marquette.

From “The Fearless Five” era to the “Ernie and Bernie Show” to the modern success under Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes, there’s plenty for UT fans to thump their chests about.

The chest thumping comes to an abrupt halt when the topic of college basketball’s largest stage is brought up.

Find any list of “best college basketball teams to never make a Final Four” from any site during any time period, and Tennessee is certain to be at or near the top.

Not only have the Volunteers never played in a national semifinal, but only once have they advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. In 2010, as a 6-seed, their dreams of finally breaking through to the first weekend of April came crashing down with a soul-crushing 70-69 loss to Michigan State in the Midwest Regional final.

A season ago, it seemed like Tennessee might be poised to break through. The Volunteers boasted not just the most stifling defense in the country, but one of the top adjusted defensive efficiency marks in the Ken Pomeroy era, which dates back to the beginning of the century.

What Barnes’ team did not have was an equally potent offense. UT’s backcourt lacked a pure scorer it could turn to during dry spells, an issue which became doubly troubling when starting point guard Zakai Zeigler re-tore his ACL just before the calendar flipped from February to March.

Despite all this, Tennessee earned a No. 4 seed for the NCAA tournament and bullied trendy Final Four pick Duke out of the Big Dance in the second round with a dominant 65-52 victory. With the top two seeds in the East Region out before the tournament’s second weekend, it looked like the seas to the Final Four may have finally parted for UT. Instead, the lack of a consistent scoring threat doomed them one last time. While the Volunteer defense kept high-flying Florida Atlantic largely in check, the offense shot a woeful 33.3 percent from the field and misfired on 17-of-23 three-point attempts as the team saw a 27-22 halftime lead turn into a 62-55 defeat.

Fast forward 10 months, and it’s almost impossible to see Tennessee’s dreams crashing down in a similar fashion this go-round.

There are three primary reasons for this.

The first is probably the most overlooked: Tennessee’s defense is damn near as good as it was a year ago. The Volunteers are holding opponents to 92.2 points per 100 possessions, up slightly from last season’s 87.5, but still the second-best mark in all of Division-I.

Second, Zeigler is back, fully healthy, and playing the best basketball of his college career. He’s shooting better than he ever has from the floor (40.4 percent), he’s averaging a career-best 5.4 assists per game, and he’s coming off a ridiculous performance in a road win over Kentucky where he matched a career-high with 26 points, dished out a career-best 13 assists, and also notched a game-leading three steals. The only other power conference player in the last 11 years to put up that stat line was Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, who did so on Feb. 14, 2016 versus Indiana en route to AP and NABC national Player of the Year honors.

Finally, and likely most important, there’s the addition of Dalton Knecht, who just might be the most intriguing (and ultimately important) player of the 2023-24 season.

Knecht wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school and landed at Northeastern Junior College, where he grew five inches and posted moderate averages as a freshman before exploding as a 20.3 point per game scorer in his second season. He parlayed that effort into an opportunity at Division-I Northern Colorado, where his career followed a similar path. He averaged 8.9 points in his first season with the Bears, and then led the entire Big Sky in scoring a year later at 20.2 points per game.

When he opted to use the extra year of eligibility afforded to him by the NCAA because of the COVID pandemic, Knecht chose Tennessee in large part because of Barnes’ reputation as a defensive specialist. In Knecht’s mind, he already had an NBA-ready offensive game, but defensive improvements — in addition to brighter spotlight in Knoxville — could give him the total package necessary to make the transition to the league.

Nationally, Knecht was largely viewed as a quality addition for Tennessee, but not a program-changer. Barnes thought differently.

“Dalton is just a terrific story of a guy whose hard work has enabled him to steadily improve his game,” the UT head coach said when Knecht signed. “He’s grown nearly a foot since he started playing high school ball. And as he’s grown, he’s expanded his skill set as well. He’s a proven scorer and was one of the top offensive producers in the portal, so he immediately gives our team a boost in offensive firepower.”

That turned out to be an understatement.

Knecht has played just 21 games as a Tennessee Volunteer, and he still ranks ninth in program history with five 30-point games, and tied for fifth in program history with three 35-point efforts. He’s established himself as arguably the best pure scorer in college basketball, and in turn has taken UT from No. 64 in adjusted offensive efficiency a year ago to No. 15 in the same category at the moment. The team is on pace to be the second highest-scoring and second most efficient offensive team during Barnes’ wildly successful nine-year run in Knoxville.

On paper, there is no longer a box that Tennessee fails to check as a national title contender. The advanced metrics love them, the eye test loves them, they have four Quadrant 1 victories, and zero embarrassing losses. For all intents and purposes, this feels like “the year.”

But … the narrative.

It’s not just the Tennessee program that has developed a reputation for not being able to get over the hump. The man currently captaining the ship has been painted with the same brush for a while now.

Only three active coaches in Division-I have more career wins attached to their name than Barnes, who resurrected a Tennessee program that had won just one SEC tournament since 1979 and just one regular-season title since 2008 when he arrived in 2015. Barring something remarkably unforeseen, this will be the seventh straight year he’s led the Volunteers a to a winning record, the sixth time he’s taken them to the NCAA tournament, and the third straight season he’s guided them to at least 20 wins.

But then there are the struggles in March, a list which Tennessee fans know by heart at thus point. The buzzer-beating loss to Loyola in 2018, the overtime loss to Purdue in 2019, falling to 12-seed Oregon State in 2021 and then to 11-seed Michigan a year later, and then the heartbreak against Florida Atlantic last season. Toss in the facts that Barnes’ last six NCAA tournament teams failed to make it out of the opening weekend and that he’s 1-12 all-time in the Big Dance against better-seeded teams, and yeah, you can see how a reputation has been formed.

March is famously a time for Cinderellas, a profile which Tennessee — an SEC squad which could be on the precipice of earning a No. 1 seed for the first time ever — does not fit.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a romantic, underdog quality about this team that will only become more apparent once we reach March.

The 5’9 point guard who has been plagued by injuries throughout his college career.

The 69-year-old head coach looking to avoid a “one of the best to never win a title” legacy.

The elite scoring guard who talked about playing in the NBA as a 6’1 junior college guard and now appears to be on the verge of making that proclamation a reality.

The most successful program in college basketball history to never play in a Final Four.

The narrative is always the narrative until it isn’t.

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