By Josh Ward
Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament draw created immediate concern from Big Orange fans on Sunday night.
Messages of “one and done” and “great, we get Duke…” immediately showed up in my social media feed after Tennessee’s No. 4 seed in the East Region was announced.
Duke would be Tennessee’s second-round matchup, for the record.
But will Tennessee even make it to round two?
There’s no guarantee, but I like the Vols’ chances.
Tennessee will open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night against No. 13 seed Louisiana. (Go ahead and set your coffeemaker – the game’s scheduled for 9:40 pm ET.)
Louisiana is a respectable team, the Sun Belt Conference champ.
But the Ragin’ Cajuns shouldn’t scare Tennessee.
Louisiana is the No. 92 team in the nation, according to KenPom. The Cajuns are the 54th-best team in the NCAA Tournament field, according to the selection committee’s ranking.
Louisiana faced one major conference team this season: Texas on Dec. 21. The Longhorns won that game 100-72.
That’s the same Texas team that lost to Tennessee in January.
Be careful playing the transitive property game, and yes, Dec. 21 was a while ago.
But the one time Louisiana was able to show what it could do against a high-level team, well… it showed us.
Let’s also not completely dismiss the Cajuns.
They’re a solid offensive team.
Louisiana is a top-50 three-point shooting team by percentage.
The team’s top player, junior Jordan Brown, is a 6-11, 225-pound forward who’s averaging more than 19 points and eight rebounds a game.
Senior guard Greg Williams, Jr., (6-3, 205) averages 13 points a game shooting 40 percent from three.
The CBS studio crew pointed to Tennessee as an upset candidate during the selection show.
So Tennessee fans aren’t the only ones worried about how the Vols will fare.
Will the team be focused?
That’s a common question for a higher-seeded team in the first round.
In this case, the Vols should have the right mindset.
Seniors Santiago Vescovi and Josiah Jordan-James will be motivated following their SEC Tournament exit. They also know the NCAA Tournament environment.
Tennessee will need its players to fill their roles.
James and Vescovi need to lead on offense.
Tyreke Key and Jahmai Mashack combined to score 30 points in Tennessee’s loss to Missouri on Friday. More production from those two can take the Vols a long way.
The frontcourt players need to control the glass against Louisiana.
And Tennessee has to defend better. Once the best defensive team in the nation, the Vols have slipped on that end of the floor without Zeigler.
Tennessee isn’t as good now as it was WITH Zeigler, but the remaining personnel should be good enough to beat Louisiana.
If that happens, will the Vols beat Duke?
Here’s another question: will the Blue Devils be there if Tennessee advances?
Consider this: Tennessee is favored by 10.5 points over Louisiana at the time of this writing. Duke is favored by 6.5 points over No. 12 seed Oral Roberts.
That’s the beauty of this tournament. You never know what will happen.
In 2000, Tennessee was a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Just like now.
The Vols beat 5-seed UConn, the defending national champions, in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16.
Tennessee’s first-round opponent in that tournament?
No. 13 seed Louisiana-Lafayette.
“Remember it like it was yesterday,” VFL and Off The Hook contributor Ron Slay tweeted.
Louisiana led that game at halftime 29-26. But Tennessee rallied in the second half to win 63-58.
That 2000 Tennessee team was talented and full of confidence. It wasn’t losing to a lesser team like Louisiana.
Neither should the 2023 Vols.