Basketball is a beautiful mind game

Marvin Westwestwords

The times, they are a’ changing. Basketball tipoff is coming soon. Rick Barnes will make everything better.

Of course, the game is more than the $5 million man. It is so much more than banging the backboard, speeding down the floor, flying from the foul line and throwing down a thunderous dunk – to the absolute delight of exuberant fans.

It is more than 6-10 guys sculpted like Hercules. It is more than hitting a clutch free throw or a crucial three-pointer from the corner. It is more than a wonderful win at Rupp Arena.

Basketball is a beautiful mind game. It is confidence, truly believing that the jump shot is going in. It is not losing focus when the referee whistles and declares blocking when it was obviously a charge.

It is faith that study and practice and effort will be rewarded. It is the inspirational truth that gutty reserve guards sometimes defeat five-star stars.

Basketball is more than endless conditioning and a full-court press. It is mental toughness – courage, fortitude, backbone, determination, moxie, spirit, tenacity and maybe more.

It is clinging to the will to win even when 15 down with only five to go. It is the ability to persevere, under all conditions, in pursuit of a goal – not a field goal, a team goal.

This Tennessee team has lofty goals. It is scheduled to begin the chase next week against Charlotte. Cross your fingers. Better yet, say a prayer for health and welfare.

There have been many years when there was more tenacity than talent. Even when the Vols had both, when they won Southeastern Conference championships, they weren’t good enough to make much impact on NCAA tournaments. Be reminded that Tennessee has never been to a Final Four. That’s 0 for 80.

The Ray Mears years were special but Ernie and Bernie didn’t get it done.

Bruce Pearl produced spectacular fireworks but didn’t get near the big trophy.

Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield were often fantastic. They fell short.

Once upon a time, February 24, 2008, Tennessee ascended to No. 1 in the AP poll. Knocking off top-ranked Memphis on the road was a heady accomplishment. Joy lasted for a couple of days. The Vols promptly lost at Vanderbilt.

Tennessee rose above Duke and Virginia on January 20, 2019, and stayed awhile. Great philosophers waved it off. Mid-season success didn’t matter all that much, they said. The payoff was far away, at the end of March madness.

This Tennessee team might make it. Well, probably not, but possibly. Barnes’ recruiters have assembled an exceptional collection, most quality depth in school history.

Defensive potential is off the chart. There is speed and length and strength and desire. There are scorers and rebounders and interesting personalities. If all the gates were open, they would draw one heck of a crowd.

Fair warning: There are more guards and wings than post players. Alas, there is a historical connection between championships and all-American bigs.

Here’s the current name game: John Fulkerson is a preseason first-team all-SEC choice. Yves Pons is on the second team. Fulkerson is a very entertaining warrior. Pons, top defensive player of last season (73 blocked shots), was very close to going pro.

Key sophomores Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James would be vital links on most any team in the country. JJJ, a former five-star, struggled with injuries as a freshman. Expect him to do more.

Vescovi is fact that sounds like fiction. He departed Montevideo, Uruguay, last Dec. 27. He enrolled on Dec. 30. He was the starting point guard on Jan. 4 against LSU. He scored 18 and went for a world record in turnovers. He made it to nine.

When the whirlwind subsided, Vescovi caught his breath and settled somewhat. Barnes said what he did was save the season.

Three other sophomores, Devonte Gaines, Olivier Nkamhoua and 7-0 Uros Plavsic, will vie for minutes and try to help. For sure they add to the international image. Olivier is from Helsinki, Finland. Uros is from Ivanjica, Serbia. Devonte is from beautiful Buffalo, just a short swim from another country.

There have been five significant additions. They are impressive enough to attract national attention. Five-star guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson and four-star forward Corey Walker are freshmen. Graduate-transfer power forward E.J. Anosike, a full-grown man, projects as a strong rebounder. Guard Victor Bailey, transfer from Oregon, is one of the better athletes and a junkyard dog on defense. He played on the scout team last year while establishing eligibility. He understands expectations.

Media members picked Tennessee to win the SEC title. You know what that means. Not much. Talking about it is different from doing it.

Before the 2017-18 campaign, many of those same experts said Tennessee was next to worst in the SEC. The Vols were preordained for 13th place. They ended up with a share of the championship. Barnes smiled. Writers and broadcasters apologized.

I snickered. I did not err. No way. I didn’t have a vote.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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