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Tennessee Basketball can’t be trusted in NCAA Tournament

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After watching Tennessee Basketball get mauled by Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament, it’s hard to imagine the Vols will make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

But let’s imagine that they can.

Let’s imagine Tennessee plays in the NCAA Tournament like it did in sweeping Alabama twice, running past Kentucky in Rupp, rallying to beat Bruce Pearl and Auburn, taming Texas A&M by 35, and slugging past South Carolina in Columbia.

Imagine if Tennessee’s March Madness emulates the way it performed in wins over Wisconsin, Illinois, Ole Miss and LSU.

As John Lennon once sang, it’s easy if you try.

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But nothing comes easy for Tennessee Basketball in postseason play, especially in the Big Dance.

For all of UT’s hoops success, only once have the Vols made it to the Elite Eight.

Tennessee has advanced to the Sweet 16 only eight times, twice in Rick Barnes’ eight seasons.

In fact, Tennessee is only one of five current SEC teams to have never made a Final Four, joining Alabama, Ole Miss, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. Georgia has been there. Auburn has been there. So have South Carolina and Mississippi State.

But not Tennessee.

I wrote last month that Tennessee Basketball had the formula to make a Final Four run. The Vols have an elite scorer, an elite point guard, play elite defense and have an All-SEC big man.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

The supporting cast simply isn’t trustworthy.

Do you trust fifth-year seniors Josiah-Jordan James or Santiago Vescovi? They scored a combined 4 points in the 73-56 loss to Mississippi State, making 1-of-11 field-goal attempts. James has scored in single digits in 16 of the last 20 games. Vescovi has had less than 10 points in 22 of 32 games.

Do you trust power forward Tobe Awaka coming off the bench? He had no points, 3 rebounds and 2 turnovers against State. And he’s prone to foul trouble.

Do you trust wing Jordan Gainey to make an impact? He had 3 points and zero rebounds or assists in 11 minutes against State. He’s had 11 games with 3 or fewer points. He hit over 49% from 3-point range as a freshman at USC Upstate. He’s hitting 29.7% this season.

Do you trust Jonas Aidoo to score in double figures after his 5-point showing against State? Aidoo had eight straight games with 10+ points before the SEC tourney but he’s had single digits 12 times. And he can be overpowered by physical bigs.

Here’s another concern: UT was outscored 42-14 in the paint by State.

State also shot 55.3% for the game, 61.5% in the first half.

Couple that with Kentucky hitting over 51% in the Wildcats’ win at Thompson-Boling Arena and you have a defense that has become overrated. It’s not a top five defense, like KenPom’s metrics suggest. It doesn’t stop the dribble drive, and it’s vulnerable to big men scoring inside. State’s 42 points in the paint is clear evidence.

And while Barnes is a terrific coach during the regular season – he’s won over 67% of his non-postseason games – he is just 27-27 in the NCAA Tournament, often losing as the favorite against teams with a worse seed.

In 37 seasons, Barnes has made one Final Four (Texas 2003) and eight Sweet 16s.

Some believe that UT losing its opening game in the SEC Tournament – the Vols had a double-bye as the No. 1 seed – will give the team needed rest heading into the NCAA tournament as a likely No. 2 seed.

That could be the case, if Barnes doesn’t wear them out at practice and film sessions going over the myriad of mistakes the team has made in its last two games.

Tennessee Basketball must reset after losing two in a row. It must find its stinger on defense, execute on offense, hit open shots, and get production from its supporting cast of James, Vescovi, Awaka, Gainey and Jahmai Mashack.

If not, a promising regular season will lead to another perplexing end.

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