NCAA tournament tests eternal optimism

Marvin Westwestwords

Tennessee will resume play Thursday at Charlotte against the Peacocks of St. Peter’s (19-13). The Vols are the No. 2 seed in the Midwest bracket. Top team is Purdue.

The Peacocks of St. Peter’s posted this graphic about 10 minutes after the NCAA brackets were announced.


Let us approach the NCAA tournament with our very own version of eternal optimism. Try to forget the stunning loss to Mississippi State. Maybe this will yet turn out to be the year. Maybe Rick Barnes’ tournament record will be overcome with one great run.

History doesn’t matter much when it comes to Tennessee and March Madness. To tell the truth, the whole truth, Volunteers have never accomplished all that much on the national stage.

Oh, there have been some fun times but there isn’t a lot to brag about when you’ve never made it to the main event. Tennessee fans have missed so much. In my humble opinion, the final Saturday is the greatest day in sports – awesome atmosphere, four teams in the same full house believing they can take the title.
I’ve been to a few other big competitions, Super Bowls, game seven of the World Series, Sundays at the Masters, 100-meter dash at the Olympic Games, Tennessee football versus Alabama 30 or 40 times, but nothing compares to the emotional overload of the Final Four.

Somebody else has enjoyed all the genuine joy. UCLA has had 11 winners, Kentucky eight, North Carolina six and Duke, UConn and Indiana five each. Teams from 37 schools have cut down the nets.

What became the college basketball championships was created in 1939. The tournament was 28 years old before Tennessee got a foot inside the front gate. It was carefully guarded. Conferences could send only champions. Kentucky most often represented the SEC.

Ray Mears’ champs of 1967 earned admission. They went 15-3 in the league. They clinched the title in three overtimes at Mississippi State. Ron Widby scored 35. Bill Justus hit the deciding free throws. Those and other Vols celebrated by stuffing a self-proclaimed star sportswriter, fully clothed, into a cold shower.

“Disrespectful,” I said. “Very disrespectful.”

Widby said the dampness was for doubting their ability back in October when he told me they would win.

A jolly, good time was had by almost all. The NCAA debut was less fun. Tennessee shot 38 percent and lost to Dayton, 53-52.

The Ernie and Bernie Show qualified for the 1976 tournament. In a sizeable upset, Virginia Military Institute won, 81-75. Grunfeld scored 36. King missed the game because of an injured thumb.

The Vols got another opportunity the next year. They lost to Syracuse in overtime. Ernie scored 26, Bernard 23. They had 12 rebounds each. Both fouled out. The team suffered 26 turnovers.

Don DeVoe’s 1979 team defeated Eastern Kentucky but lost to Notre Dame. His 1980 Vols beat Furman but lost to Maryland. The next year was more of the same, victory over Virginia Commonwealth, loss to Virginia and it wasn’t close, 62-48.

So it has often gone through the years, win now and then, lose to the bluebloods and heavyweights. There were some shockers. Illinois State stunned the Vols in 1998. Southwest Missouri State scored an 81-51 knockout in 1999. Vincent Yarbrough hit one of seven, C.J. Black one of six, Tony Harris two of 11.

Bruce Pearl’s 2007 Vols made it to the regional semifinals. Tennessee outscored Ohio State by 17 in the first half but lost the second by 18. That’s how you get to 85-84. Chris Lofton scored 24.

The Vols beat the Buckeyes in 2010 but lost to Michigan State, 70-69, in the Elite Eight. That was as close as you can get to the Final Four without going. I still wonder about one walking call.

“This loss won’t go away – ever,” said Pearl.

The next year was a disaster. The NCAA had the coach in the crosshairs. He knew or suspected he was finished. The Vols scored 16 in the second half and lost to Michigan by 30.

“We just didn’t play with heart,” said Tobias Harris.

Cuonzo Martin’s last team, 2014, knocked off Iowa, UMass and Mercer but bowed (grudgingly) to Michigan, 73-71, in the Sweet Sixteen. As I recall, a great comeback was snuffed out by a controversial charging call.

As I recall, part 2, Jordan McRae, Josh Richardson and Jarnell Stokes were the bright and shining lights.

Tennessee, No. 3 seed, found a way to lose to 11th- ranked Loyola-Chicago in 2018. A three-point play by Grant Williams put the Vols up by one with a few too many seconds to spare. Loyola guard Clayton Custer hit a 10-foot jumper with 3.6 to go.

I have long blamed that defeat on Sister Jean Delores Schmidt, Loyola chaplain, but I was never really convinced that God took sides. Coach Barnes does Bible study and goes to church.

Tennessee won 30 games in 2019 but lost in overtime to Purdue in a regional semifinal. The Vols just plain lost in 2021. Unheralded Oregon State was the victor, 70-56. Unbelievable.

Michigan was the upset winner in 2022 despite a stirring performance by Uros Plavsic.

Last year was worse. Ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic, undersized, undermanned and underdogs, became a national name with a convincing victory over the Vols. The Owls prevailed with an 18-2 run (Tennessee missed nine of 10 during that little flurry).

For some strange reason, that defeat triggered assorted questions about why Barnes does not win postseason games. It is incidental, isn’t it, that his Vols have been eliminated five times by lower seeds, four by No. 9s or worse.

Let us keep the faith. Now is the time to dust off that eternal optimism. Maybe things will be different from here on in.

Please stop laughing.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


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