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There’s no blaming coach Rick Barnes nor guard Santiago Vescovi for Tennessee Vols loss to Purdue

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It’s hard not to feel sorry for Rick Barnes, the coach who does everything right except for win in March.

The Tennessee coach fell short once again in his bid to reach another Final Four when the Vols fell to Purdue 72-68 win on Sunday in the Elite Eight. The Vols certainly didn’t play a perfect game, but the circumstances surrounding the Vols’ failed tournament run was just heartbreaking to watch. However, the facts are that Barnes has only one Final Four run in his 30-plus year coaching career and the Vols are still without their first Final Four berth in school history. Why did things go wrong?

First, the Vols had to play without one of their top leaders at full strength. Guard Santiago Vescovi was suffering from the flu, didn’t play in the Vols’ Sweet 16 win over Texas and was only able to play a few minutes off the bench against the Boilermakers on Sunday. 

Just when it seemed like Barnes had the perfect team built for March, Tennessee lost one of its toughest, hardest-nosed players, who was a great defender, a team leader and a player who can (at his best) be a dead-eye shooter.

The Vols were, perhaps, just one more scorer or a few more made baskets from pulling off the upset against Purdue, then getting healthy and being a strong contender in the Final Four. Instead, Tennessee’s players will be home in Knoxville watching the tournament instead of playing in it.

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Some have blamed Vescovi, including me, for not being able to play through an illness. After all, we’ve all heard of the Michael Jordan flu game. Can’t every other player in basketball be superhuman like Jordan? That seems a lot to ask.

If there was any doubt that Vescovi was really sick, that was alleviated by his play on Sunday. The senior did his best, but it was readily apparent that he wasn’t anywhere close to 100-percent.

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Despite the disappointing way in which Vescovi’s career ended, he should certainly be celebrated as one of the top all-time Tennessee great basketball players. His selflessness this season, as he turned over the scoring reigns to Knecht, is almost as great as his scoring and defensive play, which made him one of the Vols’ more efficient players even when his shots weren’t falling.

It seems Tennessee is snake-bit whenever they’re poised to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. No matter how good the Vols are playing headed into March, Tennessee finds a way to fall short. 

Ultimately, success or lack thereof, comes from the head coach. Well, if the Vols want to keep knocking on the door of national basketball notoriety, the Vols seem to have everything in place to make a longterm run at a championship. 

Under Barnes especially, the Vols can keep knocking on the door. Perhaps one day that will result in some salvation for Barnes and Tennessee’s fan base, who deserve to be considered one of the best groups of basketball fans in the nation. Considering what they’ve been through, Tennessee’s fan base is either one of the best in the nation or just a glutton for punishment. With someone like Barnes, who is such a good steward of the university, it’s hard not to sympathise with Barnes and his plight.

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