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Tennessee bounced; too tied to Vol star Dalton Knecht?

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One would have thought Mississippi State was the perfect warm-up opponent for a Tennessee run in March. Apparently not.

The Bulldogs hit the ground running – and dunking – against the Vols despite having just played a game the day before, beating LSU on Thursday. State took advantage of the momentum and upset the No. 5 Vols 73-56 in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville on Friday. 

One would have thought State, who was the ninth-seed in the tournament, was ripe for the picking. The Bulldogs, who were 20-12 and 8-10 in the SEC, were known for being turnover prone and poor at shooting free throws. They never let either be a factor against the Vols as they controlled the entire game.

It’s hard not to wonder what this means when the Vols face a true elimination game. Sure, Tennessee has plenty left to play for, including a national championship, but there has never been a team in NCAA history lose its first game in a conference tournament and go on to win an NCAA title. Ever.

The Vols were hoping for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That seems out of the question. Now, one has to wonder if the Vols played themselves out of a No. 2 seed. 

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The loss left fans that made the mid-state trip shake their heads, analysts look dumfounded and the entire NCAA basketball community wondering if the Vols were, well, the same old Vols in March. Tennessee’s basketball history is littered with occasions in which they dropped the ball during tournament play. Should fans expect the same when the real tournament begins? It’s hard to argue otherwise.

Along with the Vols’ history of being inept, Tennessee has to overcome head coach Rick Barnes’ resume, which includes only one Final Four despite 803 wins and being a head coach every season since 1987. That’s one Final Four run since Ronald Reagan was the president and Michael Jordan was considered merely a scorer.

Tennessee’s scorer wasn’t his usual self in the Vols’ shocking loss. Wing Dalton Knecht scored just 14 points on four-of-seven shooting despite being leaned on in the second half to lead the Vols back. One has to wonder if Tennessee’s players have found it too easy to depend on Knecht after the SEC Player of the Year became a college basketball sensation this season. What are the Vols supposed to do when Knecht’s shot isn’t dropping? Well, it looks like loose and lose mightily.

There were times when it looked like the Vols just had nowhere to go against State, that they didn’t have an answer nor any hope. Forget talk of a No. 1 seed, the Final Four or (dare I say it) a national title.

Tennessee had better play better in the NCAA Tournament than they did in the SEC Tournament or the Vols shouldn’t be worried about advancing deep into the bracket. They should be worried about getting embarrassed.

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